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The power of sustainable protein in the 21st century

Johann Tergesen discusses the role of non-meat proteins in feeding the growing global population


Is the road to sustainable protein for the 21st century paved with pigs or peas? How can we revolutionize 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 10.5 billion 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 industrialized countries in Asia and South America.

Pigs or peas?

Reducing the environmental impact of global protein consumption is of crucial importance to meet the needs of future generations. I enjoy a porterhouse steak as much as the next person, but I 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 Organization, “the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 per cent – 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, having access to fresh and 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. “Twenty-five per cent of all the world’s fish stocks are either overexploited or depleted,” reports Overfishing.org. “Nearly 80 per cent of the world’s fisheries are fully-to-over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse. Worldwide about 90 per cent of the stocks of large predatory fish stocks are already gone.” In pursuit of protein, we are 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 is time to proselytize the merits of vegetable proteins so that we can make 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.

Plant-based protein solutions

The U.S. Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get a “minimum of 0.8 g of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day to keep from slowly breaking down their own tissues.” Most people turn to animal protein sources, like beef, chicken and eggs, to fulfill 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.

Research studies indicate that soy protein may help lower the risk of heart disease due to its efficacy in lowering LDL or “bad” cholesterol. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a health claim about soy protein and its effect on heart disease stating: “Twenty-five grams 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 does not place undue strain on land, water and fossil fuel resources. By engaging in sustainable capitalism we can optimize animal protein production with respect to its environmental impact, and develop alternatives to conventional animal protein-based products.

Johann F. Tergesen is president and COO of Vancouver, B.C.-based Burcon NutraScience Corporation, a leader in nutrition, health and wellness in the field of functional, renewable plant proteins. Since 1999, Burcon has developed a portfolio of composition, application and process patents originating from our core protein extraction and purification technology. For more information visit www.burcon.ca