The Problem With Protein

Will growing hamburgers in Petri dishes be the solution to our future food demand? "Stem cell sliders" may sound laughable now, but not when confronted with the need to double global food production by 2050. With a population projected to grow up to 9.6 billion people over the next 35 years, a range of sectors and professions must confront the same question: How do we provide the quantity and quality of food necessary, let alone in a sustainable manner?

While a focus on nutrients is important to create a food system that can sustain the future population, an equal emphasis should be placed on sustainable diets. And this piece is too often missing in discussions of nutrition. A macronutrient that often garners particular attention for its lack of sustainability is protein. This is an issue Forum for the Future is investigating with The Protein Challenge 2040. I recently attended a workshop for this Challenge where a diverse group of attendees looked at how system mapping can be utilized to optimize nutritional outcomes while reducing negative impacts of protein production, with a theme being sustainability.

Sustainability must be a key factor when considering animal-source protein production methods. For example, the average meat consumption per capita is expected to grow to 50kg in 2015 from 42kg in 2010 because of increases in income and changes in dietary preference. Overall, animal-source protein demands are expected to grow by 72 percent between 2013 and 2050. Moreover, since livestock and poultry are fed plant-based diets, these animal-source proteins will compete with humans for grain foods.

Two questions confront the intersection of food security and nutrition: Do achievable and sustainable food science innovations that can produce the required quality and quantity of protein to serve consumers worldwide, exist? And, can these innovations be scaled up for the 9.6 billion people worldwide by 2050?

Protein, a macronutrient, contains essential amino acids that play many functional, structural, metabolic, and developmental roles in the body. Equally vital are micronutrients, the vitamins and minerals that the human body requires. The lack of optimal levels of macro- and micronutrients across the globe leads to what is called the triple burden of malnutrition. The triple burden refers to deficiencies in macro- and micronutrients, and to excessive intake that results in obesity. Global estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations tell us that 842 million are undernourished; 2 billion are micronutrient deficient; and, 1.4 billion adults are overweight, as of 2014. How will these malnutrition statistics change with the approaching protein sustainability problem?

To explore this question, The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science at the New York Academy of Sciences brought together leading researchers and innovators in a conference centered around the topic of the protein supply chain to discuss biodiversity, the role of agriculture in diets, the environmental impact of protein production, protein processing technologies, and innovations in the protein supply chain. A related podcast explores these issues.

Will we recognize the food on our plates in 2050? Ultimately, the food may look (and taste) a little different, but if the nutrition, agriculture, economics, and social and behavioral sciences fields work together, we can create sustainable solutions that will enable us to proactively tackle malnutrition and create enough nutrient-rich food to serve the growing world demand. ​

A version of this blog originally appeared on SecureNutrition #securenutrition, a World Bank Knowledge Platform on April 20, 2015.