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Let’s Address the Cow in the Room!

Author: Roger Lienhard, Founder & Chairman of Blue Horizon 

COP26 took place a few weeks ago in Glasgow and – to my great personal disappointment – the role of food systems in combating climate change was barely even mentioned let alone integrated in the overall agenda. Everyone seems to focus on the energy transition at the moment, the shift to electric vehicles, the use of green power like solar, wind and water. 

This is all well and good, but unfortunately it won’t be enough. Even with conservative estimates, global animal agriculture is responsible for approximately 24% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and is thus more impactful on climate goals than the entire transport sector combined. It is therefore simply impossible to address climate change objectives and meet the Glasgow targets without addressing the unsustainable food systems we currently have in place.

Yet, what did the world’s leading politicians do while meeting in Glasgow? They ate ham & cheese sandwiches during their breaks and enjoyed their typical steak dinners in the evening. Something doesn’t add up here. It’s almost like holding a lung cancer conference and then handing out free cigarettes during break time. So, when we all agree on the urgency to fix the escalating climate crisis, why is it that governments and politicians don’t invest in plant-based proteins?

In the US, the federal government subsidizes animal agriculture with an unbelievable $50 billion a year. The EU, one third of its farming advertising budget goes into promotion of meat and dairy products. Between 2016 and 2017, over $90 million in subsidies were given to beef cattle farms, mega-dairies, egg producers, poultry farms, and pig farms, some of which have been found guilty of pollution and animal health violations.

Propping up animal agriculture is hardly desirable, considering that science has weighed in multiple times on the unsustainable nature of mass-producing animals for slaughter and consumption. Especially not when evidence also shows that a shift toward plant-based agriculture would be better for the planet and people (and the animals, obviously).

Oh Canada

There are some countries that have chosen a different route. Let’s take a look at Canada. Not too long ago, the Canadian government began investing in plant-based protein, pea protein to be precise. The same type of protein that brands like Beyond Meat and Germany’s LikeMeat use. 

Canada wants to become a global leader in plant-based protein and it’s making strategic moves in that direction. At the end of 2021, French multinational company Roquette unveiled the world’s largest pea proteins plant in Manitoba. Roquette’s hydroelectric-powered plant has the capacity to process 125,000 tons of yellow peas per year, sourced from local producers.       

The Protein Industries Canada (PIC), a federally-funded nonprofit, was created to position Canada as the global source of high-quality plant protein and plant-based co-products. PIC works with private sector industry partners to create co-investment projects that have the potential to transform the agriculture and food production sector globally. Over the years, PIC has received multiple investments from the government in order to help private businesses and research facilities to work together to feed the growing global demand for pea protein. 

Other countries like Finland or Singapore are slowly following suit but we need changes on a global scale. These necessary changes will not happen without the public and private sectors working together. Building a sustainable and resilient future requires comprehensive policy reforms, financial incentives and widespread collaboration among governments, policy makers, financial institutions, investors, businesses, communities and other stakeholders of the food system. This is an issue that truly includes the entire global community. The health of our planet depends on it.