What is the ‘protein transition’? Untangling the narratives

Many in industry and academia believe in the necessity to move away from conventional animal protein production and towards something else. This, broadly, is described as a ‘protein transition.’

However, given the difficulty of revolutionising a ten-thousand-year-old food system for eight billion people fast enough to slow the global effects of climate change, this is naturally easier said than done.

Nature Food, in a review of 33 articles, found three main aims of a protein transition: mitigating the effects of animal protein production on the environment, feeding a growing population, and preventing animal suffering.

From these emerged three major narratives, or ways of talking about the protein transition. Firstly, the consumer narrative, which focuses on changing diets and puts the consumer centre-stage; the technocentric narrative, focusing on the development of new and better protein production systems; and the ‘socio-technological’ narrative, which poses organisations, governments and lobby groups as the drivers of change.

Looking at high-income countries, specifically members of the OECD, the study looked at the paths laid out by these narratives, and academia’s general conception of what a protein transition would mean.  

Consumption and the consumer

The most prominent narrative, appearing in 13 of the 33 assessed articles, was the idea that the protein transition centred around the consumer and consumption.

The narrative posits the consumer as the main agent of change. The protein transition will be initiated by the consumer, according to this narrative. Such change will be provoked through awareness campaigns highlighting the benefits of alternative proteins, as well as the promotion of smaller portions of meat and meatless days.