Preventing future pandemics: Smart protein can do plenty for public health, financial resilience

The future of our food safety, public health, and financial resilience could depend on It.

Varun Deshpande August 04, 2020 18:23:55 IST
Preventing future pandemics: Smart protein can do plenty for public health, financial resilience

COVID-19, with all its cascading effects, is expected to cost the global economy upwards of $1 trillion, says the UN’s trade and development agency. The World Bank says it is expected to throw over 60 million additional people into extreme poverty due to these economic shocks - including over 12 million in India, which already houses a fourth of the world’s extreme poor. It’s not so much a wake-up-call as a four-alarm-fire.

As governments, multilateral agencies, and financial institutions scramble to mitigate fallout, COVID-19 has brought starkly into focus the idea that systemic risk in our global supply chains means pandemics and other public health crises are not improbable, unknown ‘black swans’, but rather ‘grey rhinos’ – highly probable, neglected threats that have an enormous impact. Readers will no doubt realise that these threats have serious implications for financial investments and entire industries. That concepts of risk are couched in animal metaphors is apt, because animal agriculture is a pivotal source of systemic risk to those global supply chains.

I’ve written about these systemic risks in the past, but here’s a refresher: The large-scale farming, hunting, and slaughter of terrestrial and marine animals for food and other commodities has tremendous negative externalities in the form of climate risk, food insecurity, and public health.  Wild and farmed seafood production causes significant environmental degradation, species loss, and habitat destruction, while terrestrial and marine farming require tremendous resources in the form of land, water, and non-renewable energy expenditure to raise and slaughter animals. Chickens, the most efficient industrially farmed meat and most highly demanded in countries like India, take in 9 calories of input in the form of crops like soy, wheat, and corn, for every 1 calorie of output in the form of meat.

Because of all the steps involved in growing those crops and feeding and slaughtering animals, chickens also emit 40-60x more carbon dioxide per calorie of protein than lentils. The vast majority of deforestation, ocean dead zones, toxic agricultural runoff, the list goes on - big or small, large or local, scientists at the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization estimate that raising animals is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems”.

Perhaps most viscerally worrying of all, given the current health crisis - close contact between humans and animals brought about by rising protein demand also drives up pandemic risk. The World Health Organization says 75 percent of novel infectious diseases affecting humans over the last 30 years have been zoonotic, or originated from animals. A recent United Nations report titled Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission recently identified seven trends driving the increasing emergence of these zoonotic diseases, led by a growing demand for animal protein, unsustainable farming practices, and the global climate crisis.

We need to close the barn door on food safety risk, but the horses may already have bolted. Over a billion humans are already affected by zoonotic diseases each year, with several million deaths. This is particularly concerning in low and middle countries (LMICs) like India, where informal markets, infrastructure challenges, and overburdened governments make for a dangerous cocktail. Per the Global Alliance for Infant Nutrition (GAIN), most of the global burden of general foodborne disease is borne by those living in LMICs.

Preventing future pandemics Smart protein can do plenty for public health financial resilience

A veterinarian checks on chickens for symptoms of avian flu. Image: Science

Meanwhile, outbreaks of severe viral diseases like African swine fever have decimated the pork industry in China over the last two years. Up to 60 percent of pigs have been lost to the disease, in a country so reliant on that industry that its consumer price index is often jokingly called the China Pig Index. Worryingly, African swine fever has now broken out among pig populations in India, to pair with multiple outbreaks of avian (bird) flu in poultry facilities in Kerala, Karnataka, and UP over the last few months. These outbreaks have meant that demand for chicken has temporarily fallen off a cliff, with farmers needing to cull their stock by burying chickens alive, thereby running tremendous losses. The overuse of antibiotics in the global animal supply chain is an additional threat – three-quarters of antibiotics are currently used to keep closely-confined animals from falling sick, significantly increasing the risk of antimicrobial resistance which could cost the global economy $100 trillion by 2050.

This is all business as usual in a protein supply balanced on a knife edge of risk. The latest report from the FAIRR Initiative, a global network of investors with over $20 trillion under advisement, found that more than 70 percent of the biggest meat, fish and dairy producers were in danger of fostering future zoonotic pandemics owing to lax safety standards, closely confined animals, and the overuse of antibiotics. Those companies are worth hundreds of billions of dollars – assets which are at risk of being ‘stranded’ due to future crises. FAIRR recommends an urgent protein diversification to shift reliance away from animal-sourced meat, egg, and dairy foods. It’s a prescient call, particularly with overall demand for meat, eggs, and dairy expected to rise by 50-70% by 2050, driven to a large degree by rising income and demand in countries like India. We can scarcely afford the attendant risk to climate, food security, and public health.

Thankfully, innovation across the global food system is enabling the creation of alternatives to animal-sourced foods in ways that have never before been possible. These alternatives fall across a spectrum of categories, and are focused on delivering the same cultural and sensory experience - so that consumers and producers have alternatives which feel like a simple switch, not a sacrifice. Plant-based foods are made entirely from crops or plants but have the same texture and taste as meat, eggs, and dairy; ingredients derived from fermentation, such as fungi and algae, show huge promise in cost-competitiveness and nutrition across these categories; cultivated meat, which consists of farming cells directly instead of farming and slaughtering animals, is rapidly coming to market.

Preventing future pandemics Smart protein can do plenty for public health financial resilience

This salmon dish from the tasting menu at Olympia Oyster Bar in Portland, Oregon is made from cultivated salmon and not farmed salmon – the meat is grown from salmon cells. Image: Rachelle Hacmac/Wild Type

The advantages these ‘smart protein’ categories have over legacy meat, eggs, and dairy are myriad. They are vastly more efficient to produce, and do not introduce the disease risks associated with livestock. They can be scaled up or down to meet demand, which is proving increasingly important as the pandemic brings meat production to a standstill in the U.S. and causes farmers in India to bury their chickens. In short, they offer resilient sources of meat, eggs, and dairy where animal protein production has failed. Taken together, these factors have sown the seeds for a transformation in the global protein supply. Our State of the Industry Reports reveal meteoric growth in investments across the landscape, centred primarily in the US but steadily expanding outward into Asia. Consumer demand for plant-based foods has skyrocketed, and legacy animal meat producers are future-proofing their businesses – 9 out of the top 10 U.S. meat producers have made investments in plant-based meats.

We’re also seeing the beginnings of the industry in India with some exciting recent developments, but there is a long way to go yet. If we’re going to guard against future pandemics and climate crises, visionary investment and policy is absolutely imperative. We need research programs and philanthropy, government support of the kind being provided to the sector by Singapore and Canada, and corporate and venture capital investment – and we need it today.

The WHO and the Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN jointly celebrated World Food Safety Day on Sunday, June 7. It’s a laudable move, indicating increasing convergence on the food system’s impact on the global economy. Last year, the Food Safety & Standards Authority of India kicked off the event’s first iteration with the statement - “If it is not safe, it is not food.” I couldn’t agree more. If we’re going to feed 10 billion people including 1.6 billion Indians by 2050, and do it safely, it’s imperative that we invest in smarter protein supply chains now.

The author is the Managing Director at the Good Food Institute India, part of an international network of nonprofits spanning India, Brazil, Israel, the US, Singapore, Greater China, the UK and the EU. Since its establishment in 2017, GFI India has rapidly emerged as the central thought leader and convening body in the space of plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-based meat, eggs, and dairy – also known as the ‘alternative protein’ or ‘smart protein’ sector – in the country. GFI India’s dedicated expert teams in Science & Technology, Corporate Engagement, and Policy have worked on activities including organizing national summits, disseminating open access scientific information via white papers and webinars, establishing India’s first Centre of Excellence in Cellular Agriculture in partnership with the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai, and stimulating world-leading alternative protein research by engaging universities and government. Please visit www.gfi.org.in for more details. 

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