Around the world, we love meat — so much so that the United Nations projects that meat consumption will rise by at least 50% by 2050. To sustainably meet growing demand, diversifying protein production will be essential. 

Governments, nonprofits, industry, Indigenous communities, farmers, fishers, and others are all arriving at a common ground conclusion: If we’re to stay within planetary boundaries, business-as-usual food production won’t cut it. 

A major issue rising to the top: protein. Growing global demand for meat and seafood is putting even greater pressure on farmers and fishers to produce more with less, including a dwindling supply of farmland and diminishing stocks in the ocean. In the United States and around the world, farmers and others on the frontlines of food production are experiencing mounting challenges, from climate-driven drought and deforestation-fueled flooding to devastating bird flus and crop blights. Meat production is hitting hard limits. 

Enter alternative proteins. 

Alternative proteins — meat made from plants, cultivated from animal cells, or derived from fermentation — are agricultural innovations that use far less land and water, reduce emissions, and could open up new opportunities for farmers. These new foods are in their early days, but they’re quickly emerging alongside other agricultural solutions that can help transform the future of food for the good of people and the planet.  

To learn more, we spoke with Ilya Sheyman, CEO of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit think tank and international network of science-driven organizations advancing alternative proteins, and posed two big questions: 

Our global food system today feeds billions but faces significant limitations. How do alternative proteins help address these challenges? 

Under a business-as-usual scenario, agricultural land (primarily pastures and feed crops) is projected to expand by more than 600 million hectares by 2050 — an area twice the size of India. The World Resources Institute refers to this as the “global land squeeze,” which will lead to increased competition over finite land and water, greater emissions, and unprecedented biodiversity loss. 

“We’re running out of room for food production,” Sheyman said. “We can’t do more of the same. Around the world, a transition toward alternative proteins could reduce the amount of land needed to feed the human population by as much as 75 percent, which would free up about three billion hectares of land for ecological restoration, renewable energy, and regenerative agriculture.” 

By-the-numbers: 

How can alternative proteins further strengthen U.S. leadership in agricultural innovation while also benefiting today’s farmers and others on the frontlines of food production?  

“No doubt, the United States has long been a global leader in agricultural innovation,” Sheyman said. “To sustainably feed billions, food and agricultural systems in the United States and around the world must produce more with fewer resources. This means tripling down on innovation.” 

Alternative protein innovation could help unlock new opportunities for farmers seeking new, diverse sources of income. Today, American staples like soy, wheat, peas, and beans grown by U.S. farmers already serve as essential ingredients for countless alternative protein products, feeding families all over the world. With increased support for alternative protein research exploring crops beyond those currently grown in high volumes, even more market opportunities could be unlocked, creating new jobs and livelihoods in sustainable protein supply chains and bringing economic opportunity to rural and urban communities alike. 

Growing and producing crops for a variety of alternative protein products can not only diversify farmers’ income streams, but also help rebuild and retain soil, soak up carbon, improve water quality, and infuse much-needed crop diversity and resilience into our global food system. Around the world, governments are increasing their investments in alternative proteins for all these reasons and more. The United States’ deep roots in agricultural innovation position it well to lead this next chapter in sustainable protein production – a chapter powered by a diverse community that includes regenerative farmers, ranchers, and fishers as well as innovators who are making meat from plants, microbes, and via animal cell cultivation. “A future-resilient food system will require more of us to step up,” Sheyman noted, “and for multiple shifts and changes to happen in concert.” 

To feed a growing world using fewer resources, we’ll need more agricultural innovations, not less. With the right levels of public and private support, alternative proteins can give consumers the foods they love, scale sustainably to meet growing global demand, and help write the next chapter for food and agriculture around the world. 

To learn more, visit gfi.org. 

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