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Protein priorities

The link between protein consumption, high density livestock farming and pandemics

Animal health effectively means human health. The aforementioned statement refers to much more than just safety and nutritional value of animal protein, but also to the dangers of zoonotic diseases that can originate and spill over from animals to humans. According to the 2020 Proveg International Food and Pandemics report, livestock on commercial farms represents 60% of the global mammal and bird population. In contrast, humans and animals in the wild, respectively represent only 35% and 5% of the combined mammal and bird population.

Covid-19, a zoonotic virus, placed high density commercial livestock farming in the spotlight. In November 2020, the spill of a Coronavirus mutation from minks to humans, wiped out this Danish fur industry. A controversial decision was made to cull all minks in Denmark - more than 15 million animals. Not only does this decision leave mink farmers without an income, but give a lot of food for thought about farming operations to supply a growing demand for animal products, including meat. High density livestock farms are often an ideal place for the growth of bacteria and viruses, leading to the outbreak of epidemics and pandemics. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board actually cautioned that the world is in acute danger for epidemics and pandemics that will result in life losses as well as social and economic disasters.

Consumer trends and meat-alternative product development

Due to a growing world population and the effect of climate change, the production of healthy and more sustainable protein sources has become a priority. Protein is, undoubtedly, part of a healthy diet and a consumer favourite. Consumers are, however, increasingly aware about meat alternatives and some follow the so-called Flexitarian diet. On a Flexitarian diet, consumers eat a lot of plant based foods and meat only occasionally. According to the Colruyt Group, a large Belgian retailer with a revenue of 9.4 billion Euro, it is mostly singles and couples younger than 40 years without children that eat meat alternative protein sources.

In a recent study by Professor Ulla Kidmose of the Department of Food Science, Aarhus University, consumers from Germany, Spain and Denmark reported their intention to decrease red meat consumption. Moreover, these European consumers indicated to like and accept already familiar plant-based meat alternatives such as chickpeas and Chia seed. In the aforementioned study, Germans indicated to like and eat soya, lentils and green peas. Consumers from all three countries are, however, sceptical about insects and seaweed as meat alternatives and these categories will most likely not grow beyond micro niche market status. Price seems to be the biggest purchase barrier for European consumers as plant based meat alternative products currently do not compare well in the protein category.

There is, however, a significant amount of high-level research and development initiatives in process to supply sustainable and affordable protein alternatives. Current innovations include single cell, no-slaughter meat cultivation in a controlled environment as well as the testing and processing of mycoproteins (a fibre-like protein derived from fungi) in a variety of food products. The potential of rape seed (Canola) as protein alternative and the development of hybrid products processed from a combination of two or more protein sources, are investigated.

South Africans might be slow to adopt plant-based meat alternatives due to a deeply rooted meat eating culture and rituals. Perhaps, one can only hope for more conscious consumption and careful sourcing of meat products. A braai will not be a braai without a sizzling steak at least once in while. Would you buy lab-cultivated meat for your next braai if it can help prevent future pandemics?


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