“What’s Cooking”: the new UNEP report on animal agriculture rumbles during COP28

After years of careful wording and even censorship on communicating the real impact of animal agriculture on the planet, UNEP is finally taking a stronger stance.

On December 8th, the UNEP published “What’s Cooking”, a report that focuses specifically on the potential alternative proteins, which include plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-derived meat.

Animal-source foods (ASF) contribute substantially to many countries’ economies, being a major source of employment and income. They are still important in diets, especially in food-insecure settings, and carry special significance for many demographic groups and cultures. Nevertheless, studies have generally discovered that high intake of red and processed meat is associated with increased risks of obesity and noncommunicable diseases.

And its consumption will highly increase in the coming decades.

Animal agriculture, including animal feed production, is estimated to contribute 14.5–20% of global human-caused GHG emissions. This leads to human-induced climate change effects, as well as widespread air and water pollution, loss of soil structure and biodiversity. Furthermore, some livestock production systems have been linked to increased risk of zoonotic diseases, associated with rising antimicrobial resistance. There are also animal welfare concerns, as tens of billions of sentient animals are raised and slaughtered every year.

Several approaches of varying feasibility and potential impacts have been proposed to address the cause. These include investments in small-scale, extensive or regenerative livestock farming; direct interventions to reduce emissions from animal agriculture, such as feed additives; promoting reduced meat consumption in favor of whole plant protein sources such as beans and lentils; and discouraging consumption of animal products with taxes or other policy levers.

Thus far, such interventions have been limited. They are not achieving the desired impacts in the regions and among the populations where such changes are most needed.

Another approach that has attracted the attention of policymakers and investors in recent years is the development of new alternatives such as novel plant-based, fermentation-derived or cultivated ASF products. These products have a sensory profile (i.e. appearance, taste, smell, and texture) similar to or even indistinguishable from the conventional ASF. These alternatives include:

  • Novel plant-based products. Made from plant proteins (typically from soy or pea), combined with fats, vitamins, minerals and water to closely mimic the sensory profile of meat.
  • Cultivated meat, which is real meat made from animal cells grown in bioreactors.
  • Fermentation-derived products. Biomass fermentation-derived products, which are protein-rich foods created through the rapid growth of microorganisms that are themselves the primary ingredients. Precision fermentation-derived products, which use microorganisms to produce ingredients, including particular proteins, flavors, vitamins and fats, to be added to a final food product.

The report is a landmark endorsement at a crucial time.

Indeed, COP28 was meant to be the first food-centric UN climate conference, but the Global Stocktake, approved on December 13th, saw few and weak mentions of food and agriculture, while focusing mainly on the energy transition.

We are what we eat, and that makes us: unsustainable,” wrote UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen. “It is clear that food systems, including the meat and dairy sector, must be part of the social and economic transformations required to halt and reverse the damage we are inflicting on Earth’s natural systems”.

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Cover image: © 2023 UNEP