Is the road to sustainable protein for the 21st century paved with pigs or peas? How can we revolutionise the food system to ensure that healthy proteins, an essential nutrient for human health, are available to a global population estimated to reach from 7.5 to 10.5bn people by 2050?
The worldwide demand for animal protein such as meat and milk proteins is rapidly growing due to the burgeoning global population, and reinforced by the swelling income per capita in industrialised countries in Asia and South America.
Reducing the environmental impact of global protein consumption is of crucial importance to meet the needs for future generations. I enjoy a porterhouse steak as much as the next person, but can't help but be troubled that animal protein production actually generates higher greenhouse gas emissions than transport.
According to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the global livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent (18%) than transport.
Producers must feed plant protein to animals in order to produce animal proteins, and animals are not efficient converters, pound for pound, of the proteins they consume. In addition, health concerns caused by E.coli, Asian bird flu and mad cow disease, along with the growing use of antibiotics in animal production, have provoked consumer concerns that animal-based protein products can be unsafe.
Living in Vancouver, Canada, enjoying delicious seafood is a privilege many of us enjoy, but at a steep environmental price, as fish (another valuable protein food source) is under attack.
"25% of all the world's fish stocks are either overexploited or depleted," says Overfishing.org. "Nearly 80% of the world's fisheries are fully-to-over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse. Worldwide, about 90% of the stocks of large predatory fish stocks are already gone."
In pursuit of protein, we're losing fish species as well as undermining the ecological unity of our oceans.
It's clear that in the coming year and beyond, our global community needs to place an emphasis on improving the food system with a careful analysis of the entire agricultural system and where we can make environmental amends.
As a plant protein advocate, I believe it's time to proselytise the merits of vegetable proteins so that we can make the transition to an ecologically and socially sustainable food system.
Access to affordable plant proteins is crucial in serving our rising global population without adding undue stress to our environment.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get a 'minimum of 0.8g protein for each kilogram of bodyweight per day to keep from slowly breaking down their own tissues'. Most people turn to animal protein sources such as beef, chicken and eggs to fulfil this daily requirement. However, most of our diets contain way too much animal and not enough of the plant-based protein sources that are found in vegetables, nuts, grains and legumes.
Adding soy protein may also help in the fight against heart disease, as it has been found beneficial in lowering blood cholesterol. By lowering LDL or 'bad' cholesterol, you can help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Research studies have demonstrated the cholesterol-lowering properties of soy protein. With this evidence, 11 countries have approved health claims for soy protein's potential to lower blood cholesterol and lower the risk of coronary heart disease.
In 1999, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a health claim about soy protein and its effect on heart disease, stating: "25g of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."
Plant-based diets are high in fibre and lower in fat. In numerous studies, high-fibre, low-fat diets have been shown to lower the rates of certain cancers such as those of the colon, breast and prostate. In addition, this type of diet is believed to reduce the risk of diabetes.
Our growing global population needs access to great-tasting protein that doesn't place undue strain on land, water and fossil fuel resources. By engaging in sustainable capitalism, we can optimise animal protein production with respect to its environmental impact and develop alternatives to conventional animal protein-based products.
Johann Tergesen is president and chief operating officer at Burcon NutraScience Corporation.