August 3, 2021, by Lexi Earl

The National Food Strategy: Rebalancing our ‘protein economy’

This post is written by Prof Andy Salter

July saw the publication of the long awaited second part of the National Food Strategy. Part 1 of the report was produced in July 2020 and was originally intended to provide an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the UK food system. However, this was ‘hijacked’ by the need to address the impact of Covid (and Brexit) on food availability and health, particularly on the most vulnerable people in the UK. In Part 2, Henry Dimbleby returns to his original remits and has produced an independent review of all aspects of the UK food system and its impact on both the health of the population and the environment. Perhaps, inevitably, the suggestion of imposing taxes on foods rich in salt and sugar is what caught the imagination of the press. However, this far-reaching report highlights many of issues which have been central to the work of the University of Nottingham’s Future Food Beacon, including the Future Protein Platform, that I have had the pleasure of leading over the last two years.  For the benefit of both the population and the planet, we need to urgently address how we meet the protein requirements of all demographics of our population.

Protein, or more specifically the indispensable amino acids within it, are essential for maintaining growth in young people, and overall health throughout our lifespan. Protein can be provided by a wide range of animal and plant-based foods, but not all proteins are equal. In general, animal products (including meat, milk and eggs) represent the best source of ‘high quality’ protein in terms of both amino acid composition and bioavailability. Many plant sources are deficient in one or more of the indispensable amino acids but, in those who chose to consume a plant-based diet, this can normally be overcome by consuming a range of different plant sources. Plant-based foods can also contain a range of ‘anti-nutritional’ factors that can reduce the bioavailability of amino acids to the consumer. The majority of UK consumers meet (and usually exceed) their amino acid requirements by consuming a mixture of both animal and plant derived proteins. However, as the report clearly shows, current livestock production systems make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and use and pollution of our waterways. Furthermore, excessive consumption of red and processed meat, rich in calories and saturated fatty acids, makes a major contribution to the burden of chronic diseases faced by a large proportion of our population, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. There is little doubt that a large proportion of the UK population would benefit from reducing their consumption of such foods. The report addresses the question of how this might be achieved.

It is interesting that Dimbleby rejects the idea of introducing a ‘meat tax’. This was vehemently rejected by many of the consumers consulted. Most importantly, it was seen as having an unfair impact on the poorest in society who are dependent on high quantities of ‘low-cost’ cuts of meat to provide not only protein, but a range of micronutrients. Instead, it calls for investment in the production of a range of meat alternatives, making them accessible and affordable for the whole population. The report primarily focusses on ruminant meat (particularly beef) as this is responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock, as well as contributing high amounts of saturated fat to our diets. Cows produce methane, which as the report points out, is a much more potent greenhouse gas than C02. While this is partly offset by the fact that, with time, it is actually broken down in the atmosphere, cattle farming undisputedly makes a significant contribution to global warming. However, the report also points out the wide-range of emissions which are associated with different farming practices, with over a ten-fold difference between the most and least polluting systems. While the UK tends to be towards the lower end of such emissions, the report, while acknowledging the contribution of livestock farming to the rural economy and environment, urges both changes in the way we raise such livestock and an overall reduction in the consumption of red and processed meat. Little consideration is given to other forms of meat (such as pork and poultry) which, while having smaller carbon footprints, require vast amounts of land (for feed production) and fresh water. Within the Future Protein Platform, we are specifically addressing this issue and looking at alternative, more sustainable, sources of protein to include in the feed of such species, including insects and single-cell organisms. The report also deliberately avoids discussion of aquatic species and environments. The production of sustainable sources of feed for the aquaculture industry is also one of our priorities.

The report goes on to consider in more detail ‘The Protein Transition’. Having ruled out a meat tax how does it propose to reduce the impact of animal protein production on the environment (and our health)?  A three-pronged approach is proposed:

  • Investment in technology to reduce methane production in ruminants
  • Investment in alternative proteins that can replace some animal products
  • Nudging consumer behaviour through industry action and public sector procurement (prisons, hospitals, government buildings, the armed forces, and schools).

In many ways such an approach can be seen as ‘pushing at an open door’. Considerable work is already underway, on both feed and breeding programmes, to reduce methane emissions in cows. Meat, particularly red meat consumption has reduced in the UK. In fact, the latest data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey suggests that in 19-64 age group average intake was 56g/day which is considerably below the 70g/day recommended by the government’s Eatwell Guide. However, the range is immense, as demonstrated by the FAO balance sheets, which indicate that, in 2018, the amount of red meat available per person in the UK was 143g/day.  We have also seen the emergence of a wide range of meat alternatives developed using plant, fungal or even insect ingredients. Unfortunately, at present, these are usually considerably more expensive than their meat counterparts, which again highlights the need to protect the most vulnerable in society.  The true nutritional value of such products is another area we are actively researching within the Future Protein Platform, both in terms of composition and bioavailability. The NFS also acknowledges developments in the ‘cultured meat’ arena, though clearly there is still considerable work to be done to demonstrate the affordability, sustainability, and acceptability of such technologies.

Overall, we are excited to see this independent report reflect so many of the areas of protein production and nutrition that we have been actively researching through the Future Protein Platform. It represents a balanced consideration of the environmental and health impacts of the UK food system and, in making recommendations, includes careful consideration of the impact on the most vulnerable in our communities. In terms of protein production and consumption, there is an urgent need to ‘nudge’ both the agricultural and food industries and the public towards less dependency on animal sources. We very much hope that this will create opportunities and funding to allow us to continue to work, with both academic and industrial colleagues, to ensure the greater inclusion of some of the alternative protein sources we are actively working on within the UK food system (and hopefully beyond).  Achieving a more balanced ‘Protein Economy’ is one of the central themes of the report and was the rational behind us setting up the Future Protein Platform. We look forward to seeing government enabling such a transition.

Posted in Food Research