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The key to feeding 9 billion people: sustainable protein

A new coalition aims to forge a more environmentally-friendly future for meat, soy, seeds and other proteins.

All foods made from meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts and seeds are part of the protein foods group, which is fundamental to our health. Yet the way we produce and eat protein is placing a heavy strain on the Earth’s land and sea resources.

In the face of changing food consumption patterns, a rising global population and increasingly scarce resources, the situation can become only more grave if we don’t take action.

This is why a group of organizations from the world of business and some NGOs have joined together to form the first global coalition exploring how to feed 9 billion people enough protein in a way that is affordable, healthy and good for the environment. They are Protein Challenge 2040.

Behind the Protein Challenge 2040 is Forum for the Future, a sustainability not-for-profit, along with others from leading organizations including the World Wildlife Fund, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, retailers Target and Waitrose; Volac, a leading dairy nutrition firm; food manufacturers the Hershey Company and Quorn; and taste and flavor experts Firmenich. The partnership brings together representatives from animal, plant and alternative protein industries.

The production of protein is associated with significant social, environmental and economic impacts — for example, the cultivation of soy as animal feed is a major cause of deforestation, while food and agriculture are among the biggest contributors to climate change.

Consumption is unbalanced, and an estimated 2 billion people suffer from malnutrition, resulting in major health risks, while in the developed world, protein consumption is often more than that required for optimal health. So, through in-depth research and work with food, nutrition, health and technology experts across the world, the coalition has mapped the interrelationships within the entire protein system for the first time.

Six areas of innovation have been identified, on which the coalition plans to focus (PDF) its attention to meet future demand sustainably.

The six areas are: increase the proportion of plant-based protein consumption with consumers; scale up sustainable feed innovation to meet the demand for animal protein; close the protein nutrient loop (for example, reducing waste rich in protein by finding new ways to return it to the production cycle); develop indigenous plants as protein sources for local communities; scale up sustainable aquaculture for food and animal feed; and restore soil health.

The coalition initially will focus on the first three: increasing plant-based protein consumption; developing sustainable animal feed; and closing the protein nutrient loop.

Now, the coalition is looking for other partners to bring resources and expertise, and to help with raising the profile of protein as an integral part of a sustainable food system by 2020. It wants to change the conversation around protein, from "good" and "bad" sources towards a better balance of sustainable protein.

In the words of the Protein Challenge 2040, "This isn’t a report on problems in the food system. It is an invitation for you to join us in transforming the future of protein together."

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