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"Consumers in early industrial countries now eat far more protein than is needed for optimum health or that the world can sustainably supply," says new report. (Photo: Chris McKee/flickr/cc)

Global Investors to Big Food: Cut Meat to Avoid 'Protein Bubble'

Greenhouse gas emissions, resource depletion, and growing antibiotic resistance are just a few of risks associated with factory farming

Deirdre Fulton

Citing the environmental and public health risks of factory farming, a $1.25 trillion coalition of multinational investors has called on 16 global food corporations—including Kraft Heinz, Nestle, Unilever, Tesco, and Walmart—to cut their reliance on meat and diversify into plant-based sources of protein. 

The campaign launched Monday is backed by a new briefing from the FAIRR (Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return) Initiative and responsible investment organization ShareAction, entitled, The Future of Food: The Investment Case for a Protein Shake-Up (pdf).

Our current food system is unsustainable, the report states, listing greenhouse gas emissions, resource depletion, and growing antibiotic resistance as among the negative consequences of "the factory farming model and the increasing overconsumption of animal products."

In fact, the briefing warns, if livestock production and consumption are not swiftly reduced, it will be impossible to reach the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement. An Oxford University study released in March projected that by 2050, food-related greenhouse gas emissions could account for fully half the emissions the world can afford if global warming is to be limited to less than 2°C.

According to the FAIRR/ShareAction report:

[T]he livestock sector currently accounts for 14.5 percent of global anthropogenic GHG emissions: more than the global transport sector. While there are certainly improvements to be made in production and distribution efficiencies, research indicates that these have only a small part to play; with, for instance, a reduction in food waste likely to lower food-related emissions by just 1 to 3 percent. In contrast, adopting global dietary guidelines with lower meat consumption would cut food-related emissions by 29 percent, vegetarian diets by 63 percent, and vegan diets by 70 percent.

"The world's over-reliance on factory farmed livestock to feed the growing global demand for protein is a recipe for a financial, social, and environmental crisis," said FAIRR founder Jeremy Coller, who also serves as chief investment officer for Coller Capital, one of 40 firms participating in the campaign. "Intensive livestock production already has levels of emissions and pollution that are too high, and standards of safety and welfare that are too low. It simply can't cope with the projected increase in global protein demand."

But while the current meat model is unsustainable, prospects are bright in the plant-based protein market, which Coller said is "set to grow by 8.4 percent annually over the next five years."

In turn, the investors want to know what companies are doing to avoid what Coller dubs the "protein bubble."

The FAIRR/ShareAction report points to strategies ranging from the further development of plant-based protein alternatives to more creative marketing around "less-meat" options—for example, "inspiring a modified dietary approach through appealing on-packet recipe suggestions that do not default to meat."

As ShareAction campaigns manager Clare Richards declared in a press statement: "Evidence suggests that plant-based protein sources are better for your health, your wallet, and the planet. Consumers increasingly recognize these benefits; and now this coalition of forward-thinking investors are doing the same."

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