Foods vary in their protein content, but the ubiquitous class of biomolecules play a major role across the food industry - and increasingly so in the bakery and snacks categories - as important carriers of nutrition, functionality and sensory experiences.
Proteins can also play a central role in transforming food systems at the scale needed to bring down climate emissions and combat food security concerns.
Increased demand for animal-based protein, in particular, is having a negative environmental impact, generating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, requiring more water and tracks of land. A growing body of data also confirms that animal proteins are associated with increased health risks, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and bone and liver disorders, among others.
As such, the global food sector needs to transition from its strong dependence on resource-intensive animal-based proteins to a mix of sustainable alternatives, including plant-based (protein crops and ingredients), cell-cultured (meat, mycoprotein, fungal and yeast biomass), precision fermented, algae-based and insect-based sources.
The EU urgently needs a boost
Innovative policymaking is one of the keys to unlocking protein diversification. However, at the global level, regulatory applications and approvals outside of the EU indicate that Europe is falling behind as the rest of the world accelerates to deliver novel sources of protein as part of a more sustainable food system.
As Europe enters the next phase of the Green Deal, decarbonising the agricultural and food industries is essential to put the bloc on a path towards climate neutrality by 2050. Currently, the food system contributes to an alarming 26%-34% of GHGs, along with 78% of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication.
So, after a year of indepth analysis, the EIT Food Protein Diversification Think Tank has drafted a new policy that builds on the White Paper on Protein Diversification published in December 2022, going a step further with recommendations for EU decisionmakers.
Accelerating Protein Diversification for Europe was launched at the organisation’s Future of Food conference - held in Brussels on 26 October.
Members of EIT Food’s Protein Diversification Think Tank include Puratos, Grupo AN, the Good Food Institute (GFI) Europe, Danone, Lund University, the German Institute of Food Technologies (DIL), University of Helsinki, VTT Finland, ShakeUpFactory, Aarhus University and BGI. The policy document also includes input from other experts and stakeholders across the industry to foster broad and inclusive participation.
“Protein diversification has a central role to play in transforming food systems at the scale needed to bring down climate emissions and increase resilience while creating new opportunities,” said Acacia Smith, senior policy manager for the Good Food Institute (GFI) Europe.
“This collaborative effort confirms the important role of EU governments in driving change - from R&I funding, to enabling policy frameworks, to support for farmers.”
The paper advocates a systems-thinking approach, acknowledging the importance of engaging with the entire food system.
Success in diversifying protein is impacted by many factors and must be seen as part of a complex and dynamic food system. Systems solutions will require collaboration across the entire food value chain to achieve widespread adoption and inter-disciplinary research.
EU-level future policies - starting with the EU Protein Strategy - must foster the evolution of alternative protein sources.
To achieve the full economic, environmental and societal benefits of protein diversification, the EU must assess how its various regulatory frameworks are either hindering or enabling innovation.
Farmers remain essential in providing the key ingredients for alternative proteins and as such, should receive substantial support by governments in research, development, and de-risking investments.
Government research is also needed to drive long-term RDI into societal topics such as environmental sustainability and mitigating risks for private investors.
The policy also delves into the broader considerations of adopting alternatives, including availability, affordability and cultural preferences, along with measures from information to competitive pricing.
Protein diversification will require a larger workforce, so to continuously attract and retain talent, education, capacity building and training programmes covering a wide range of disciplines and sectors are needed.
“Embracing protein diversification fosters innovation, has the potential to create substantial economic opportunities and position EU Member States at the forefront of a rapidly evolving sector,” said Marja-Liisa Meurice, director of EIT Food North and East.
“The adoption of a comprehensive strategy for protein diversification is not solely an option, but a necessity.
“Putting these recommendations into action requires meaningful collaboration among governments, industry stakeholders, academia and civil society. Only through shared commitments can we address the main challenges of our time, transcend traditional limitations and foster a sense of global responsibility.
Join the conversation
The EIT Food Protein Diversification Think Tank will continue to engage stakeholders in a structured discussion to examine the existing gaps, barriers and opportunities in an effort to co-create evidence-based roadmaps, including recommended actions and policies.
“We invite all policymakers and stakeholders across the EU to join us to co-create a more sustainable, resilient, healthy and safe food system,” added Meurice.
EIT Food is one of nine innovation communities established by the European Institute for Innovation & Technology (EIT), an independent EU body set up in 2008 to drive innovation and entrepreneurship across Europe.