Welcome to the website for The Future of Protein – a research project led by Professor Ryan Katz-Rosene at the University of Ottawa – which aims to provide context to help decision-makers and consumers alike answer these questions.
These questions all come together in the growing debate about the future of one essential macronutrient: protein. Yet not all sources of protein are the same…
On one hand animal sourced protein foods (like meat, seafood, milk and eggs) play a crucial role in the agri-food system: They are “complete proteins” containing all essential amino acids and provide a full range of micronutrients (like iron, zinc and vitamin A). Animal products additionally make an important contribution to culture, cuisine, and economic development. The farm animals from which we derive such proteins provide natural fertilizer, draught power, additional production materials like wool, gelatine and hides, and they contribute to food security in rural communities. Moreover, humans generally display an insatiable desire for animal sourced proteins: As societies become wealthier and more urbanized, demand for animal sourced foods typically increases. Globally, per capita meat consumption has about doubled over the last half-century.
So, what’s the problem? Animal-sourced proteins are typically much more resource-intensive to produce than plant-sourced proteins like beans, legumes and nuts. This becomes a challenge when we consider that we live on a planet with finite resources and with a quickly growing human population. The sheer growth and scale of animal agriculture has exacerbated many ecological problems – from deforestation, to water and soil degradation, and global warming. Industrial-scale animal agriculture typically depends on grain feeds which come from crops which could otherwise feed humans directly. There are also ethical concerns about the ways animals are treated in the agri-food system, particularly when mass-produced. A debate is raging through the field of nutrition regarding the healthfulness of animal sourced proteins (which are typically high in fat), inasmuch as the potential health impacts of low-protein diets.
Governments, food producers, investors, activists, and every-day consumers are responding to this “protein problem”, albeit in different ways: For some the answer lies in revising the existing agri-food system – using technologies to modernize production systems, resolve existing problems in the agri-food system and overall make it more efficient and ethical. Others seek to replace the protein subsystem which is presently dominated by animal agriculture, by introducing new protein products (like insect powders and ‘plant-based meats’) and re-centering plant proteins in the human diet. For others still the solution lies in restoring ‘balance’ in the system – a balance between agri-food development and thriving nature which has largely been eroded with industrialization, global food chains and excessive processing. This research project examines these three approaches to sustainable protein.
As the late Anthony Bourdain often claimed, food and diet are intensely personal and even political. The Future of Protein research project aims to delve into this complex societal challenge through an objective multi-dimensional take, aiming to build dialogue across the interconnected themes which are brought together in a holistic discussion about protein. The objective is to work towards a more comprehensive and nuanced set of answers to the difficult questions above, to help guide policy, conscientious consumers, and future research initiatives.