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.
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.
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.
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.
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.