Does the World Have a Protein Problem?

When it comes to sustainability, protein and in particular, animal-based protein is a topic that can get a lot of attention. In a couple of months’ time, I’m about to embark on a PhD looking at how we can sustainably meet our growing global protein demands through to 2050. In other words: how can we ensure everyone has access to a protein-sufficient diet in a way that reduces pressure on our natural environment and resources?

However, a question I’m often asked is “wait…aren’t we all already consuming too much protein?”. It’s a widely-held belief and, as you’ll see below, a perspective that’s often portrayed by some of the world’s leading sustainability think-tanks. So before I start, maybe it’s worth addressing the question: does the world really have a protein problem?

To try to answer this question, I’m going to build upon some analysis carried out by the World Resource Institute (WRI). This “correction” of the WRI’s work is in no way intended as a criticism of them as a think-tank: I’m a big fan of the way they try to communicate key ideas through visualisations and figures. However, on reflection of its Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Charts article (based largely on its new paper Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future), I couldn’t help but feel it was getting the global food, and particularly protein, story really wrong.

In the figure below, I’ve copied over the WRI’s visualisation of our global protein consumption, as an average by region (the green bars represent plant-based protein; the red as animal-based protein). The thickness of the bars is representative of the size of the population in that region. Now, the WRI’s analysis and interpretation of this figure is pretty simple. I quote: “All regions already consume more protein than average dietary requirements—with highest consumption in wealthy regions.” At first glance that does indeed appear to be the case—we know that especially for regions towards the right of the diagram, the resource intensity of animal-based protein production means that for sustainability reasons we probably need to reduce our intake. That’s pretty simple.

Protein Picture 1 (2015, non-adjusted for digestibility)

But what about the regions towards the left of the figure? Are they really “consuming more protein than average dietary requirements”? To answer this fairly, there are three key considerations/corrections I think we need to address.

Firstly, consider that the bars in the diagram represent the average protein intake per person by region. This means that some people will be consuming more, and some less than the represented average. How many are above and below this number and by how much? That’s a challenging question to answer, and largely depends on the regional inequalities in diets. But let’s keep it simple and say we have a normal distribution—all this means is that the distribution is symmetric, with half of a population consuming more than the average, and half less than the average. Protein Normal Distribution

If this were the case, it would mean that half of India—which has an average teetering on the recommended average line—would be protein malnourished. Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa would similarly have large portions of their populations in protein malnourishment. Let’s not underestimate what that means: we’ve suddenly moved from all regions over-consuming protein to several billion not consuming enough.

This is a key drawback of relying too heavily on average values. Averages can be great for trying to condense broad and often complex issues into simple messages (I utilise them a lot for this reason)—but if not used carefully, they can disregard large, and crucial, parts of the story. Averages work well when the distribution around them is small but unfortunately we live in a largely unequal world. Relying too heavily on them therefore runs the risk of over-simplifying the narrative.

But wait- it gets worse. The figure above considers only average bulk protein intake. It takes no account for protein quality or the human ability to digest it. “Protein” comprises a range of different building blocks—amino acids—and for adequate human nutrition, we need an adequate mixture of all of these. To take account of this, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) developed a “Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score” (PDCAAS) which attempts to correct for protein quality and truly evaluate the amount that can be digested for human nutrition. Unfortunately from a sustainability perspective, animal-based protein tends to have a much higher score than plant-based sources.

In the figure below I’ve attempted to show what happens to our previous representation when we correct for this digestibility factor¹. It’s further bad news for those at the left-hand side of our figure—those on predominantly vegetarian diets—here, even the average population intake falls well below the recommended requirement. In India, for example, we might conclude that the majority of the country are protein-malnourished. The same applies to Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Protein Picture 2 (2015, corrected for digestibility).jpg

It gets worse still. The third correction we have to consider is the effect of population growth over the next few decades. By 2050, the UN predict that our global population will grow to approximately 9.5-10 billion. Of course, more people means more food and more protein. Where is most of this growth projected to occur? You guessed it: India, Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa—the three regions already in severe protein malnourishment. I’ve crunched the numbers and drawn the end result below²; it tells a pretty startling story. The average intake in India and Sub-Saharan Africa fall below half of the recommended intake [remember: this means that around half of the population could be even lower than the bar drawn]. More than half of the global population would already be, or be in severe risk of falling into, protein-malnourishment.

Protein Picture 3 (2050, corrected for digestibility).jpg

Through three quick analyses, we’ve suddenly moved far from the WRI’s message that all regions are over-consuming protein. But this is sadly the narrative that is being told over and over. The sustainability story of the right-hand side of the figure—that developed regions are consuming too much resource-intensive animal-based protein—is always the key focus. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a vitally important one. But let’s return to the basic definition of sustainability for a second: “meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own”. The environmental community tends to place key emphasis on the latter half, often to the neglect of the former. When it comes to protein we’re not meeting the needs of the current generation. Several billion are protein-malnourished, and sadly their story is being completely missed from the global food narrative.

Does the world have a protein problem? Yes: a crucially important yet overlooked one. So through my PhD, I aim to address and converge both ends of the spectrum. The lower end deserves as much, if not more, attention than the upper one. To do so, we need to start to telling the full protein story.

 

¹To correct for digestibility, I’ve applied an average PDCAAS score of 0.65 for plant-based protein, and 1.0 for animal-based protein in line with FAO guideline figures.

²Note in this case that I’ve assumed global food production remains constant—admittedly this will not be the case. How agricultural efficiency, productivity and distribution will or could change in the coming decades is a topic too large to cover here.

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4 thoughts on “Does the World Have a Protein Problem?

  1. Good article. I think you could push it even further though as there are at least 2 more wrinkles that you could iron out with some data and projection. The growth in population, especially in China and India is driven, among other forces, by the growth in GDP. There is a good correlation between a nation GDP and the protein and calories intake of its population. China alone is expected to generate a few hundred millions of “middle class” people in the next 3 decades. The mix in society in these macro regions will change (i.e. the average coefficient of proteins/person in 2050 in China will be greater than the same coefficient today as the % of middle/upper class will have increased). So the overall average will be shifted up by the more-than-proportional effect of the middle-class. When people get rich, they don’t want cabbages, they want pork chops.
    The other wrinkle may not be directly linked to the “protein problem” as directly. But from last year 51% of the World’s population lives in urban areas. Vegetables or animals do not grow in urban areas. They need to be taken there. But food, unlike “digital stuff” does not travel well. The longer the logistic chain, the higher the % of errors. and errors = waste. So, the final twist in the story is that in 35 years there will be more people in cities. And in order to service them (unless we re-think our supply chain systems) there will be more wasted food. And we already spoil 30% (on average) of the food dedicated to human consumption today.

    Food for though.

    Keep up the good work.

    Ivan

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    • Hi Ivan,
      Thanks for much for reading and for you the important points you raised. Both issues you highlight will form important considerations as I take this research further.

      GDP is, as you note, one of the key drivers of meat (and hence protein) consumption- and in the case of China, over the past few decades we’ve seen a rapid increase in the average level of meat consumption. India’s story has been a little different- although its GDP has been strongly increasing over the past few decades its increase in meat consumption has increased much less so. This is most likely due to a strong religious following and largely vegetarian diet. I suspect meat consumption will rise further in India over the coming decades, but there is certainly a resistance there, with the need for a cheap, high-quality protein supplement/substitute. This effect will be mirrored in some other nations, but as you rightly note, for most we would expect to see meat consumption rise with a growing middle-class.

      Your note on urbanisation and food waste is an interesting one. I’d somewhat concluded that an increase in urbanisation may in fact swing the other way: that it would in fact REDUCE food waste. I’m basing this not on research I’ve seen on food specifically, but on other networks which work more efficiently and effectively with the density that a city provides. Public transport networks, for example, are much easier to engineer and construct efficiently in a dense population than having everyone distributed through rural areas. I’d kind of assumed that if you could be sensible in minimising waste from the field to a central city distribution point, a highly urban population would greatly reduce the amount that would be wasted thereafter. I think this is actually the opposite of what you’re suggesting, so if you have any sources which have suggested this it would be great to share them.

      Many thanks again for reading and interesting discussion.
      Hannah

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  2. Hanna,
    I do not have any first hand research on the impact of urbanization on predicted level of food waste (and actually, if you find any please share it). However some data i found: in Europe and North America most of the food waste happens between the supermarket and the family fridge. 43% of the food intended for human consumption is wasted at this late stage. That number goes up to 50-60% in fresh products (vegetables, fruits). The waste in less developed countries happen closer to the production stage. Missing infrastructure (roads,storage,ice), pests and diseases, lack of cold chain, etc. The number i see is 30% of waste there. Now, increased urbanisation means that the world will look incrementally more like Europe and North America. Longer chains of distribution for mass market food. Like in every system, the more links or steps, the higher the probability of errors. I have seen new technologies aimed at lengthening shelf life of fruits that would make a lot of sense in urban areas (you can leave cherries on a tree a little longer if you need to consume them locally, or you can pant different strains that ripen later, but if you need to harvest all at once to ship the products far away…). My first conclusion is that the longer and more complex is the supply chain, the more food will be lost (unless new tech and organization of GDO find solutions). My second conclusion (tooooootally personal) is that people in cities often do not treat food with the same respect as people who live in rural areas and who work in the production of the food itself. So, urban families throw away food a lot easier and with less emotional attachment (other then the financial impact). But I am no sociologist. Just an observationalist… 🙂

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    • Hi Ivan,
      Yes, I’ve done quite a bit of work on the food losses along the cradle-to-grave chain and how this differs across different regions. You’re absolutely right that in developing countries it’s food LOSSES closer to the production end that it the key issue, and in developed countries it’s food WASTE closer to/at the consumer level. Your figures are quite similar to the ones that I’ve seen also, however it’s important to distinguish between the metrics that people are using to talk about waste. Often it’s given by mass (e.g. kg) which can be quite a poor measure relative to kcal or grams of protein for example. Especially when it comes to fresh produce like fruit and veg which we tend to waste a lot of: they’re generally water-dense, which can mean that the macronutrient losses are actually much lower.

      I see your reasoning that the longer the chain, the more opportunities for losses along the way. The only point I’d have to add to that is that I’d expect that with GDP growth, especially in developing nations where food losses are predominantly a result of poor storage, handling, transportation infrastructure, that we could make significant progress in closing that gap. It seems logical/inevitable that this infrastructure will improve through development.

      I totally agree on your second point about a lack of respect/care for food in urban populations. I can’t quite work out whether it’s an emotional or financial driver (probably a combination of both, as always). I’d always seen it as a correlation rather than causality. In other words, richer people spend less of their income on food, therefore care less about wasting it. And it just so happens that richer people tend to live in cities (rather than the fact they live in cities being the direct link).

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