As humanity is facing the COVID-19 pandemic, wouldn't it be great if there's something we can do to save people and the planet at the same time? The pandemic adds another dimension to the discussion about animal-based protein and the need for a protein revolution. Animal welfare, climate change, and individual health problems were already part of the debate, but it now becomes painfully clear that our collective health, our society, and the economy are at stake as well. Pandemics are often caused by diseases that spread from animals to humans. So, as we build back a better world post-COVID-19, how can we include a move towards more plant-based protein?
Online discussion for positive change
On 24 June 2020, the Alumni Circle for Sustainability hosted an online discussion about the transition towards most plant-based protein. As food for thought, all participants had watched the documentary Cowspiracy, about the impact of animal protein on the environment. A diverse audience joined the discussion, ranging from a principle-based vegan and a nutrition expert to the managing director of a meat-based snack company and a sustainability-focused supervisory board member. Here are the barriers and drivers to the protein revolution that came out of the lively discussion.
Barriers to transition
- Flavor: While some alternatives may intend to make you feel better, they don’t all taste better.
- Price: Many vegan and vegetarian alternatives are more costly than the real thing.
- Short-termism: Consumers, investors, and supervisory board members are mostly focused on short-term return and benefits.
- Status: In many countries, meat is closely connected to status. In some places it could represent food that was previously only accessible to the riches, in others it’s part of the hospitality culture. The approach to inspiring a transition will, therefore, have to be tailored to the cultural context.
- Misalignment: The numbers don’t always line up on what the issues are, undermining the sense of urgency.
Drivers of change
- Better alternatives: Create better alternatives that make a plant-based diet easier and seduce people to try them out through Food TV shows, influencers, etc.
- Benefits: Highlight benefits like improved health and sex drive (as highlighted in another documentary, The Game Changers).
- Storytelling: Use psychology and storytelling to highlight both the issues and the solutions.
- Taxation and legislation: Ensure consumers pay the full price for meat and dairy, including the hidden health and environmental costs (also called externalities).
- Younger generations: Teach children both about the issues of meat and the other opportunities. Encourage and create space for their own ideas and solutions.
The closing remarks did not bring real closure on how to speed up the protein revolution. Positive storytelling seemed promising but slow; legislation deemed effective yet unlikely in the current political and pandemic context.
In the end, most agreed that it’s up to individuals to drive – or better yet, buy – the change. One solution that was offered by alum Willem Adrianus de Bruijn is to reward consumers for buying products that restore the planet, as highlighted on his website. Other examples that were mentioned to help drive positive change were the Vegetarian Butcher (recently acquired by Unilever), Rügenwalder Mühle (a seventh generation family business that switched from meat to vegan and vegetarian products) and HEMA’s vegan apple crumble cake.
Please share what is supporting or hindering you in your personal protein revolution.
An adjusted version of this post also appeared on www.changeincontext.com and www.theterrace.nl. Photo credits: Fuzzy Rescue and Ella Olsson