The world’s population is increasing rapidly. All people need to eat and there is no denying that protein supplies an essential part of a healthy daily diet. However, protein sources can exert an enormous impact on the environment and the world. Scientists around the globe are investigating plant-based alternatives to animal proteins. These alternatives can play a vital role not only in supplying essential nutrients but also doing it in a more environmentally friendly, sustainable way compared to animal proteins.
By the Numbers
While the current global population stands at 7.7 billion, some predictions estimate the number will grow to 9.8 billion by the year 2050. Correspondingly, food production needs to increase. This population growth means higher demand for animal protein; in fact, demand for animal protein might double. While animal proteins supply a full complement of essential amino acids required for human health, they also leave behind a huge environmental footprint. Some concerns, specifically related to increased animal protein, include the required amount of land, water, and feed necessary for its production, as well as emissions of greenhouse gases and potential issues with animal welfare.
The issues with animal-based protein extend beyond the land into the oceans. Researchers at the University of Western Australia and the University of British Columbia, who analyze global fishing trends, found that industrial fishing fleets have dramatically expanded their fishing areas, traveling double the distance to fishing grounds compared to 1950, yet catch rates are a third of what they were 65 years ago per kilometer traveled (Science Advances, 2018).
Plant proteins are certain to play a key role in meeting the protein needs of future generations and the growing population. The need for plant protein alternatives is critical and matching plant sources in the right combination can achieve adequate essential amino acid profiles. Currently, major industrial protein ingredients from plant sources include soy, wheat, rice, corn, peas, canola, and potato. Plant protein utilization can reduce demand for animal protein sources, thereby reducing environmental impact.
One study conducted in 2014 that compared the environmental cost of two plant-based proteins—one from beans and the other from almonds—to the cost of three animal-based proteins found that to produce 1 kg of protein from beans required “approximately 18 times less land, 10 times less water, nine times less fuel, 12 times less fertilizer, and 10 times less pesticide in comparison to producing 1 kg of protein from beef.” Beef also generated five to six times more waste compared to the other animal proteins, namely chickens and eggs (Public Health Nutrition, 2014).
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