The Protein Challenge 2040: Dairy and plant players join the sustainability dots

By Annie Harrison-Dunn contact

- Last updated on GMT

'Past debate around the protein system has been extremely polarising, but to make progress we need to move beyond that,' says Forum for the Future. © iStock.com / marilyna
'Past debate around the protein system has been extremely polarising, but to make progress we need to move beyond that,' says Forum for the Future. © iStock.com / marilyna

Related tags: Food and agriculture organization

Sustainability non-profit organisation Forum for the Future has brought together the sometimes conflicting voices of the dairy and vegetable protein industry to meet its Protein Challenge 2040 – the world’s first whole-system protein collaboration. 

Members include conservation NGO WWF, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), retailers Target and Waitrose, dairy firm Volac, flavour firm Firmenich, confectionery manufacturer Hershey and meat-free brand Quorn. 

Past projects from the Forum include Dairy 2020​, which looked to make the UK dairy industry more sustainable. 

Yet Simon Billing, principal sustainability advisor for the organisation, said this latest initiative was an attempt to move away from individual value chains of plant sources versus fish versus livestock towards a more holistic approach. 

In a statement, Stephanie Draper, deputy CEO of Forum for the Future, said: “Past debate around the protein system have been extremely polarising, but to make effective progress we need to move beyond that and work together. 

“At Forum we believe that collaborative action is essential in order to address complex issues that no one entity – whether a consumer group, NGO, business or government – can tackle alone.” 

Three key areas 

As outlined in its Protein Challenge 2040 summary report​, three areas for immediate action have been drawn: boosting plant-based protein consumption, scaling up sustainable feed and reducing protein waste. 

Billing told us this could be done through pilot schemes due by the end of the year, which could include new product development, campaigns to increase plant protein consumption or working with existing aquaculture projects on using protein waste streams. 

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“We’re looking to really accelerate the action.”​ 

He said this was not about telling the public ‘don’t eat dairy’, however, but taking the pressure off animal sources.

“What it comes down to essentially is that we have a very interrelated system. Lots of fish gets fed to animals, lots of high value soy gets fed to animals and there are lots of inefficiencies across the system. So we need to be very much taking a step back and focusing on what the solutions are that are going to deliver the future needs.

“I think it’s critical people look at it from a systems lens and then obviously also understand the fantastic value of protein sources like fish and dairy have and that we use them really wisely and don’t waste them.”

Commenting in a statement to press, Andy Richardson, head of corporate affairs at Volac, said: “Protein is essential for human health, but the current state of how it’s produced and consumed is just not sustainable in the long term. The coalition is now looking for additional partners with resources, expertise and drive to take action in these areas together.”​ 

Nine billion mouths

The United Nations (UN) predicts the world population will reach nine billion by 2050 - 34% higher than today.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has repeatedly cited this figure in its calls to increase food production​ and rethink food security policies. 

This increasing population means more mouths to feed and greater competition for resources. This was a fact increasingly accepted by “progressive”​ businesses from all industries, Billing said. 

Yet in developed regions like the US and Europe protein consumption could actually be reduced. 

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The Forum said consumption was “unbalanced”,​ with an estimated two billion people suffering from undernutrition while in the developed world protein intakes went above and beyond that required for optimal health. 

“This is something that the food industry needs to accept and be careful around its messaging going forward given that I think there will be increasing scrutiny around protein because it is so critical for human health and it has a number of impacts associated with it.

“So we’re not in any way suggesting we should be eating more protein [in developed countries], there are people on the planet that don’t have enough and we need to be aware of that but we need to be thinking about the balance of our protein sources generally.”

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