Alternative Protein

Innovation and Alternative Proteins

By 2050, global food systems will need to meet the dietary demands of more than 10 billion people who on average will be wealthier than people today and will aspire to the type of food choices currently available only in high‑income countries.

This food will have to be produced sustainably in ways that contribute to reducing climate change, and that address other environmental challenges. At the same time, human health is influenced more by food than by any other single factor, and facilitating healthy diets is critical both for individual well‑being and for containing the costs of treating illnesses.

It is widely recognized that the current trajectory of the food system will not allow us to meet these goals. The food system needs to change radically to address these challenges, and a very important part of this will be the adoption of new technologies, including the opportunities provided by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The food sector has been relatively slow at capitalizing on recent technological advances: for example, the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Innovation with a Purpose report12 showed that cumulative start‑up investments since 2010 are more than ten times greater for healthcare than for food. However, this does now seem to be changing and one of the areas attracting the greatest attention and investment is alternative proteins and meat substitutes.13 How this sector will develop is far from clear, but there is a possibility of genuine disruption in the near future.

Figure: Trends in the consumption of meat (data from FAOStat); regional data to date and global data to date and projections to 2050

Figure : Emission intensities of the different food types


There are several environmental benefits associated with insect farming (Dobermann, Swift and Field, 2017), farming mealworms requires less water than farming conventional livestock (Miglietta et al., 2015). Farmed insects can satisfy their water needs from their feed or substrates. In addition, certain edible insect species, like mealworms, are more drought-resistant than cattle (FAO, 2013; van Huis, 2013). Most of the water needs for insect farming is related to processing steps such as cleaning.

Production of edible insects has a high land-use efficiency when compared to traditional protein sources (Alexander et al., 2017). In fact, it takes two to ten times less agricultural land to produce one kg of edible insect protein compared to one kg of protein from pigs or cattle Oonincx and de Boer, 2012). The production of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by insects is far lower than that of conventional livestock (Oonincx et al., 2010). For instance, pigs produce 10 to 100 times more GHG per kg of weight than mealworms (FAO, 2013).

In Thailand, edible insects fall under the Food Act B.E.2522 (1979),35 which is the general law that governs food quality and integrity.

The Food and Drug Administration, under the Ministry of Public Health, is the main authoritative body responsible for regulating insect production and consumption (Halloran et al., 2015).In 2017, the Thai National Bureau of Agricultural Commodity and Food Standards (ACFS) from the Ministry of Agriculture released guidelines for cricket farming.36 The document contains information on how farmers can rear crickets in a safe and efficient manner with processing facilities operating in compliance with correct standards.

Another set of guidelines was established in 2012, which provided guidance on rearing silkworms (Bombyx mori) for silk production.
Good Agricultural Practices for Cricket Farming GAP_CRICKET_FARM.pdf (in Thai). Accessed 5 January 2021. An unofficial English translation of the document was made by Bugsolutely, a cricket pasta producer, and it can be found at 5 January 2021. 

Life cycle assessment (LCA)1 shows that in the case of the yellow mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) and the superworm (Zophobas morio), land-use and GHG emissions are lower than for pigs, poultry, and cattle, per kg of protein (Oonincx and de Boer, 2012; van Huis and Oonincx, 2017). This aspect contributes to climate action under the Sustainable Development Goal2 13 (SDG 13) (Dicke, 2018). According to Oonincx and de Boer (2012), while less energy is required to produce one kg of edible protein from insects than beef, it is comparable with pork and requires slightly more energy than chickens. The energy use in insect production is mainly due to maintaining climate-controlled facilities for the poikilothermic3 insects (Oonincx and de Boer, 2012).

However, Oonincx and de Boer (2012) also found that larger larvae in mealworms produce surplus metabolic heat, which they suggested could be used for rearing the smaller and more heat-demanding larvae. In addition to rearing, processing steps for insects like drying can also be energy intensive, as was found through a life cycle analysis of black soldier flies by Salomone et al. (2017).

Other reasons to consider insects as a sustainable source of protein include the fact that they can be reared all year around, most of their body is edible, they have high fecundity and growth rates, and they efficiently convert their substrates into body mass.

Nakagaki and DeFoliart (1991) estimated that up to 80 percent of a cricket’s body is edible as compared to 55 percent of a chicken and a pig, and 40 percent of a cow (Figure 2). In fact, studies state that crickets are twice as efficient as poultry in converting feed to protein, and they are four times and twelve times as efficient as pigs and cattle, respectively (Imathiu, 2020). In addition, insects can be farmed in quite small spaces making them versatile in terms of farming settings, whether rural or urban.

Diet‑related mortality

Switching to many of the alternative proteins markedly reduced diet‑related mortality in the model, an effect particularly due to increased consumption of dietary fiber. As expected, the research found switching from beef to cultured beef had little effect on diet‑related mortality given the intent of creating the same end product through a different production means our promise is that all of our catering disposables are reusable, 100% recyclable, and made from high-quality materials, we use packaging that is eco-designed in order to reduce environmental footprint, during its whole life cycle.

Given a particular diet and knowledge of its nutrient composition, it is possible to use epidemiological data to estimate consequent health effects. The research used the model to ask two types of questions involving alternative proteins. First, what would the consequences be for an adult of consuming an extra 200kcal d‑1 serving of beef or one of the 12 other food types? This additional analysis is undertaken in order to explore the marginal benefits of eating more of each food type given the diets consumed by people around the globe. Second, the research explored the consequences of replacing beef with one of the 12 other food types. This substitution analysis allows an exploration of the effect of diet switching. In this substitution analysis, the results will be more strongly influenced by regions with greater current beef consumption.

Figure: The health effects of consuming an additional portion of different alternative proteins

The results of this dietary addition analysis are shown in Figure, where the different diets are shown in rank order of increasingly positive effects on health. Consumption of more beef increases the individual risk of diet‑associated mortality by about 1.5%, chiefly due to higher home consumption. Substitution with cultured meat is marginally better because of a more favorable lipid (fatty acid) profile, with heme consumption again being a main driver. It should be noted that some of the advanced vegetarian burgers that use artificial heme to create the impression of red meat, which is not included here, may have similar negative effects on health. While most people in middle‑ and high‑income countries get adequate iron (in heme and non‑heme forms) from a varied diet, some individuals can suffer iron deficiency, which meat (though also other food types) can help to remedy. Substituting beef with any of the ten alternatives reduces diet‑related mortality (Figure). The rank effects are similar to those for the diet addition analysis, with cultured beef having the smallest effect (a 0.1% reduction) and pea and mycoprotein the greatest (a 2.4% reduction). Breaking down these figures by country income status, the most positive effects are found in wealthier countries, where beef consumption is high and where there is a particular benefit of consuming more fiber. The effects are much less in low‑income countries and may be lower still than indicated here if meat is providing nutrients missing in very poor diets.

HIC: high‑income country; UMIC: upper‑middle‑income country; LMIC: lower‑middle‑income country; LIC: lower‑income country.

The effects of diet substitution on the intake of three nutrients
Prepared by the Oxford Martin School, Oxford University for the World Economic Forum’s Meat: the Future dialogue series.