This paper reviews the literature on different protein sources and their implications for food security, health, ethics, environmental sustainability and socio-economic wellbeing. It classes the many contentious debates about the future of sustainable protein into three main categories or meta-narratives - “modernising protein”, “reconstituting protein” and “regenerating protein” - and analyses how stakeholders in each of these camps are seeking to reshape food systems.
The authors reviewed 277 sources published between 2011 and 2021, including books, peer-reviewed articles, reports and studies. Rather than the three meta-narratives mentioned above (and illustrated in the figure below) emerging from the search, the authors defined the three categories at the start and used the sources to see how each meta-narrative talks about the five areas of impact mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Image: Figure 1, Katz-Rosene et al. Three sets of objectives within the sustainable protein literature. View a high resolution version here.
The paper considers three main sources of protein: animal-source protein foods (ASPFs) including meat, fish, dairy and eggs; plant-sourced protein foods (PSPFs) that are unprocessed or minimally processed, such as beans, tofu, nuts and quinoa; and novel protein food products (NPFPs) which have not been considered as a global source of protein until recently, or are heavily processed, including powdered protein supplements, plant-based meat analogues, cell-cultured meat, and newer insect-based foods aimed at Western consumers.
The main characteristics of the three meta-narratives are:
- Modernising protein focuses on using technology, research, innovation and investment to improve food production processes. It tends to promote sustainable intensification and increasing efficiency in terms of achieving greater yields per unit of input, for example by using biometrics to monitor the health of livestock in industrial production systems, by automating aspects of crop farming to avoid people having to conduct dangerous tasks, or by using feed supplements to reduce methane emissions from cattle. This narrative does not seek to completely reshape the existing food system. (For more on an example of a school of thought that arguably fits into this meta-narrative, see the TABLE explainer What is ecomodernism?)
- Reconstituting protein generally aims to replace animal-sourced protein foods with alternatives (both novel forms and plant-based options), both because of the perceived inefficiency of rearing livestock and because of the argued negative health impacts of eating large amounts of meat. Many stakeholders in this camp also have strong ethical objections to eating animals, seeing it as unnecessary in many cases. This narrative seeks to significantly transform the protein production system, especially through dietary change in richer nations. It also seeks to free up land for nature conservation.
- Regenerating protein. This narrative tends to argue against the industrialisation and globalisation of food systems, and seeks to protect community-oriented food production such as small farms and local food supply chains. It emphasises food sovereignty, for example for pastoralists. It tends to favour relatively unprocessed protein sources, including both crops and livestock, and argues for regenerative agricultural practices such as free-range grazing. It argues for animal welfare rather than animal rights, seeing rearing livestock as morally acceptable if the animals are raised in appropriate conditions where they can express their natural behaviours, and furthermore tends to regard livestock farming as having many important benefits for farmers, pastoralists, traditional agriculture landscapes and nutrient recycling. Crop production within this paradigm might use practices such as no-till, intercropping and agroforestry.
The authors see these three meta-narratives as being somewhat overlapping, and map out some key organisations who fall into one, two or all of the camps. They also argue that the large differences between some of the approaches outlined may be hindering progress towards a sustainable protein transition, for example because of the tendency for arguments to merely entrench existing ideological viewpoints. They conclude:
“While there is no shortage of technical and scientific literature on questions surrounding protein and sustainable development, more research is needed on the discursive, socio-political and cultural side of protein sustainability”
“The challenge is to find a way for diverse pathways in food sustainability to overcome ideological determinism, policy incoherence, and collaborate on shared objectives such as tackling corporate control over the food system.”
There is a very quickly growing literature regarding the appropriate role of protein foods in sustainable food systems transition. From this literature there has emerged several points of contention and debate. There is, for instance, contestation over the appropriate balance of plant- and animal- sourced protein foods in feeding the world’s growing population; competing interpretations of the contributions made by plant and animal protein foods to healthy diets and the alleviation of malnutrition; disputes over the welfare of animals and human workers in protein production, as well as over the ethics of genetic manipulation in the production of novel protein food products; environmental debates about the relationships between protein food production methods and climate change and biodiversity decline; and finally (though not exhaustively), disagreements about how various populations, economic sectors, and cultural practices could be impacted by disruptive alternative protein food technologies or new protein-oriented policies introduced in the name of fomenting a sustainable agri-food transition. Protein foods are thus deeply implicated in a range of debates about sustainable agri-food systems.
This article provides a review of the literature on the future of sustainable protein across five core dimensions of sustainable food systems: i) food security; ii) nutrition and health; iii) ethics and welfare; iv) climate change and biodiversity; and v) social, economic, and cultural prosperity. Using a similar method of interpretive narrative analysis as that developed by Béné et al. (2019) in World Development, we identify and define three main “meta-narrative coalitions” on protein sustainability and examine their respective proposed solutions along these five dimensions. We label and define the three meta-narrative coalitions as i) “Modernizing Protein” (an approach which centers technological innovation as the primary mechanism for achieving sustainability in the global food system); ii) “Reconstituting Protein” (which prioritizes the reduction of animal protein consumption and the introduction of novel protein food products in order to achieve sustainable food system transition); and iii) “Regenerating Protein” (which seeks to restore human-nature relationships within protein production and consumption practices as a means of achieving sustainable development within the global agri-food sector). In addition to defining these meta-narrative coalitions and highlighting their core differences, internal disputes, and areas of common ground, we note how all three narrative coalitions are actively seeking to reshape food systems in material ways. In conclusion, we argue that the pluralist character of contemporary efforts in sustainable protein transition – wherein the world appears to be simultaneously moving in different directions at once – holds resilience potential, yet it also faces challenges which could hinder sustainable transformation. Our review contributes to ongoing debates in the literature by highlighting the need for proponents of different sustainable protein meta-narratives to work towards shared objectives, and constructively engage criticisms from opposing perspectives.
Katz-Rosene, R., Heffernan, A. and Arora, A., 2022. Protein pluralism and food systems transition: A review of sustainable protein meta-narratives. World Development, 161, 106121.
Read the full paper here. See also the TABLE explainer Focus: The difficult livestock issue. For an alternative analysis of the narrative around sustainable protein, see Tara Garnett’s report Gut feelings and possible tomorrows: (where) does animal farming fit? and our upcoming podcast project Meat the four futures.