Next Food: How Alternative Proteins Can Transform the Food System

The current European food system is not in line with the sustainability and health goals set by the European Union. Despite significant efforts and initiatives, the shift towards a more sustainable food system is still not holistic and fast enough to achieve the required scale. What is needed to accelerate this transition, address environmental concerns and improve public health at the same time?

Livestock farming and the dairy industry continue to play a major role in the food market, which exacerbates the strain on resources and increases the negative environmental impact. At the production stage, food supply chains are long, with multiple players, different interests and often without complete transparency.

At the consumer level, increased awareness about health and sustainability is not always translated into concrete action. Food waste and loss at both the production and consumption level, coupled with an insufficient amount of resources being fed back into the cycle, make the challenge even greater. Could the emerging wave of alternative food products such as new proteins or meat alternatives be the key to healthier and more sustainable food systems?

Alternative proteins, which are plant-based and food-technology alternatives to animal protein, are often coined as next food. Their rise comes in response to challenges related to animal-based and conventionally produced proteins. They could help transform our food landscape by diversifying the sources of food intake towards healthier and more sustainable options.

However, the alternative proteins ecosystem is not without challenges of ist own, not least related to production difficulties, consumer acceptance barriers, or broader infrastructural issues. To address these challenges, holistic, interdisciplinary, and collaborative approaches are needed, bringing key actors together and enabling them to engage toward solutions that have a real impact.

For example, actors involved in the production of alternative proteins are faced with the challenge of supply chain volatility. With a large number of suppliers operating at the start-up level and with limited investment capacities, meeting demands while maintaining good quality and sustainable production efficiency can be a daunting task. Frameworks that allow for more transparency and better exchange flows in the supply chain can help reduce its volatility. In addition, harmonised regulatory and food standard requirements across different governance levels, such as the EU and/or national level, can help reduce complexity in favour of leaner processes for producers.

In food environments or points of sale, there is yet no common terminology to properly refer to alternative proteins in a manner that is representative of product attributes while avoiding dissonance with product lines from the same counterpart category (i.e., animal-based products). Similarly, alternative protein products across food environments are usually placed separately from their counterparts (i.e., shelves, menu pages),  enforcing a silos environment. Integrating consumer insights and perspectives in decision-making processes at points of sale can help make such products more tangible to consumers while empowering them to make informed decisions.

Moreover, consumers often lack information or knowledge about the benefits (environmental, nutritional, health) of alternative protein. Availability and choice, risks of potential allergens, the need for a balanced nutritional profile as well as clear guidance on safety requirements for new alternative proteins are all aspects that need to be addressed in order to overcome current consumer barriers.

To capitalise on and advance current developments in the next food sector, involved actors need to take a few key steps, including:

  • integrate existing evidence and develop new knowledge
  • establish strong foundations for the next food ecosystem by embedding and promoting sustainability principles and criteria
  • address the needs and requirements of all supply chain actors in inclusive ways
  • promote transparency, traceability, and accountability across the supply chains with the support of digitalisation and Artificial Intelligence tools and processes.

Participatory, multi-stakeholder engagement processes that involve consumers are necessary to co-create and identify pathways and mechanisms that aim to bridge the gap between broader narratives, promotional efforts, social mindsets, and next food as an instrument toward a healthier and more sustainable food system.

At the CSCP, together with our partners, we explore the potential of alternative proteins to address sustainability challenges by taking all relevant actors on board and engaging them in inclusive and solution-oriented ways. Currently, we are working on the topic of alternative proteins in three projects:

  • LIKE A PRO supports the transformation of our food system by focusing on and exploiting the potential of alternative sources and products to shift the balance towards sustainability. The project will develop 16 new products based on 7 novel, sustainable, healthy, EU-based, affordable, and industry-viable sources. These products will be complemented by other types of solutions aimed at further promoting alternative proteins in the market and among consumers. Therefore, the project will engage with both food actors and consumers to understand their needs and requirements and integrate them into the final project outputs.
  • AlgaePro BANOS works towards showcasing the economic potential of sustainably sourced algae-based products by developing and improving 8 new product value chains, 2 of which focus on food products. These value chains are based on both micro and macro-algae (seaweed) and will be developed on the basis of sustainable and circular principles to increase resource efficiency. Additionally, the project will study their market potential as well as consumer acceptance.
  • FEASTS aims to enhance the evidence and knowledge on cultured meat and seafood as a response to respective gaps in the field, as well as develop indicators to evaluate the sustainability of these products as a basis for pathways towards their development in an ethical, cost-effective, and sustainable manner. Additionally, the project will ensure economic competitiveness and facilitate information flow to consumers regarding these products.

Alternative proteins hold great potential in re-shaping our food system by protecting the environment while improving public health. Join us on a journey of discovery to identify and close knowledge gaps, give way to multi-stakeholder co-creation, and boost innovation toward positive change.

Reach out to us to identify and start new collaborations that help make next food a key part of the solution to today’s pressing environmental and health challenges.

For more information, please reach out to Arlind Xhelili .

Image: AI generated with JourneyArtAI