Beyond protein: How will we meet growing demand for sustainable fats?

Global fat production will need to double from 35 to 70 billion tonnes by 2050, Lehr says

A growing global population won’t only affect protein demand – sustainable fat production is also a major challenge, says food traceability expert Dr Heiner Lehr.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), meat consumption is projected to double by 2050, with most additional demand coming from developing countries. This raises clear challenges in terms of potential deforestation to make way for livestock and feed, water shortages, and the broader climate impacts of livestock rearing.  The FAO has said the only way to meet demand would be to increase efficiency and reduce waste, but "it is hard to envisage meeting projected demand by keeping twice as many poultry, 80 percent more small ruminants, 50 percent more cattle and 40 percent more pigs, using the same level of natural resources as currently”.

However, the focus on increasing protein demand ignores the fact that protein only makes up about 20% of a healthy diet. About half of calories come from carbohydrate and the remaining 30% from fat. Meat would provide some of this extra fat, but as protein demand increases, so does demand for other macronutrients to maintain their dietary proportions, says Lehr.

“It’s not only about proteins. We have had the discussion about protein many, many times, but not so much about fats,” he told delegates at the Sustainable Foods Summit in Amsterdam earlier this month.

Doubling fat production – sustainably or not

Lehr is the technical director of FoodReg, an international firm that specialises in computerised systems to help brand manufacturers back up their sustainability claims. He said the planet would need to double fat production from 35 to 70 billion tonnes by 2050, based on the World Health Organization’s recommended dietary proportions for macronutrients.

The company launched its online platform KnownSources last year to verify palm oil claims, and Lehr says palm oil could help meet increased global fat demand – for better or worse.

“Palm oil is a very interesting ingredient because it is four to five times more efficient than other oils…However palm oil is also linked to many sustainability issues. The belief is that sustainable palm oil is a very good ingredient. It’s a relatively cheap resource and brings income to many people. It’s lifted many people out of poverty.

“However, unsustainable palm oil is very harmful.”

Tracing palm oil

Its KnownSources tool uses data from Global Forest Watch, part of the World Resources Institute in Washington D.C., which details forest cover, forest fires and deforestation, both legal and illegal. One year in, the platform has records for about half of the world’s palm oil, but Lehr admits the second half is likely to be more difficult, as the company aims to get more smallholders on board.

Meanwhile, he is cautious about European food manufacturers’ commitments to traceability, saying that traceability is only a precursor step to sustainability.

“We believe you need to understand where you are sourcing from in order to measure sustainability,” he said. “But traceability is not a replacement for sustainability.”

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