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COVID-19 and the Protein Industry: Is it Time to Promote the Adoption of "Alt-meat"?

Global Food for Thought by Margaret Hegwood
Tony Webster
Sign for the Impossible Burger at a Pittsburgh restaurant

This post, from our Next Generation series, explains the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic, and why some activists urge more investment into meat alternatives.

If there is one word that describes the current COVID-19 pandemic it is uncertainty.

‘When will the crisis end? When can we go back to work? Will my sick family member recover?’ are all questions that seem to be on everyone’s mind. One more question that I have seen frequently – and one that concerns me as a food processing engineer - is ‘Can I trust that my food is safe to eat?’.  

Early on scientists identified COVID-19 as a zoonotic virus, one that makes the genetic leap from animals to infect humans. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Our close proximity to animals – through animal domestication and human-wildlife interaction – has put us at risk of contracting such infections for centuries. Viral infections like influenza, measles, and Ebola are all zoonotic pathogens. In fact, since the 1940s, a majority of infectious diseases can be traced to animal sources. Additionally, as global temperatures continue to rise, the likelihood of such viral diseases also increases.    

Consequently, some activists have cited the risk of future zoonotic disease - which may well emerge from domesticated animals rather than wildlife as coronavirus did -  as reason to invest more effort into integrating alt-meat into the protein industry as demand continues to rise. As we begin to further explore the risks of animal protein, does our global food industry need to more seriously consider the possibility and desirability of alt-meat as a viable protein alternative?   

In the past five years, products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have grown in popularity as a way for consumers to decrease their personal environmental footprint and reduce animal suffering. A lifecycle assessment of Beyond Meat products found that the Beyond Meat burger uses 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, and 90 percent less fossil fuel emissions than a traditional beef burger. Additionally, long-term epidemiological studies have shown that a transition from red meat to plant-based foods may lower the risk for chronic disease and mortality among consumers. While alt-meat is not currently as affordable as animal protein options, some predictions foresee that plant-based burgers will likely be sold at just one-fifth of the price of a traditional burger by 2030.  

However, when considering a transition towards alternative meat, food industry leaders must look beyond the discrete impacts of a single technology and utilize a more holistic, systems approach. Crises like COVID-19 emphasize that our current protein supply chain is hindered by negative environmental impacts and some health concerns. We also rely on centralized supply chains that lack the flexibility to switch between interchangeable food products. For example, disruptions in the food supply chain could limit access to products like beef and pork. Alt-meat, in addition to its potential for lowering agricultural carbon emissions and serving as a healthy protein option, also diversifies our protein portfolio. As such, utilizing new food technology decreases the vulnerability of our protein system amid crises like the coronavirus.  

The global demand for meat is predicted to rise over the coming decades. As we seek to build resilient food systems, alternative proteins may play a critical role in the transition towards a more sustainable and diverse protein supply chain. Given the complexity of supply chains, global food governance will need to develop a blended approach that incorporates alternative protein sources with improvements in the safety and environmental impact of animal protein. Additionally, more studies should be funded to understand the impacts that technology like alt- meat will have supply chains and whether and how they can support consumer, environmental, and economic well-being. This comprehensive approach, in combination with technological innovation, could help to build a more resilient protein supply chain for the years to come.  

Next Generation series

The Chicago Council's Center on Global Food and Agriculture is pleased to announce a new blog series featuring perspectives from our Next Generation Delegation Alumni on the food security effects of COVID-19. This piece is from 2017 Next Generation Delegate Margaret Hegwood.

About the Author
Margaret Hegwood
PhD Student, Environmental Studies and USDA Fellow for Food Technology and Food Security, CU Boulder