UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme, today chooses Cop28 to present a report on the potential environmental, health, social and animal welfare implications of plant-based food products. In Italy there has been a very lively debate on synthetic meat, which however does not have vegetal origin, because it is produced in a laboratory and is the result of a cell cultivation process that starts from the embryonic stem cells of an animal. The Unep report instead focuses on meat and dairy products produced with vegetablesderived from fermentation and cultured.

For plant-based meat, the debate was mainly focused on two aspects: the opportunity to call foods based on vegetable proteins “burgers” or “salami” (the law promulgated by the Meloni government, which now must be revised according to EU directives , prohibits it) and the economic and social impact that the increase in cultivation of soy and other vegetables essential for producing vegetable meat, together with the abandonment of animal farming, can have in some countries.

The methodology of the Unep Report

The Report was drawn up by a group of experts in different fields and evaluated “the available data on the impacts of meat produced from plant-based alternatives compared to conventional ones”. The goal is to provide the basis for regulating, investing in, or providing other support for new plant-based products that replace conventional meat and dairy. There is an important clarification regarding the methodology and it concerns the comparison between emissions produced by conventional meat and those implicit in the spread of a vegetarian diet or the improvement of animal farming.

“The report does not thoroughly explore the differences between developing and transitioning to new alternatives with other strategies to reduce the negative impacts of the current meat and dairy industry, such as replacing meat and dairy with more vegetarian and vegan products traditional products (e.g. tofu, tempeh), the development of insects as a source of human and animal nutrition, the promotion and widespread diffusion of regenerative animal agriculture, the reduction of demand for meat and dairy products through pricing policies (e.g. taxes), or interventions aimed at reducing animal emissions (e.g. feed additives). The report does not concern fishing or the meat of (other) wild animals”. In other words, UNEP focuses only on the opportunity to invest more and promote more research on non-animal meat, including synthetic meat.

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Meat as the “only” alternative

In this regard, it is indicative that the UN program states that “Globally, foods of animal origin contribute substantially to economies and constitute a major source of employment and income. They – we read in the Report – are also an important source of proteins, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, especially in contexts of food insecurity, and have a special meaning for many demographic groups and cultures”. It is an important starting point, because if it is true that a different sensitivity towards animals, combined with the desire to limit one’s carbon footprint, has led in various countries (especially in the North of the world) more and more consumers to choose to eliminate products of animal origin, in other meat is often the only alternative. then underlined that the strong demand from Western economies for traditional products such as quinoa they avocado (just to name two vegetables with a high protein content) has put local crops under stress.

20% of global emissions come from animal products

In any case, to help reduce emissions, countries in the North of the world should reduce meat consumption and change livestock farming models. “Food systems are responsible for approximately 30% of current anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, while animal products represent almost 60% of these emissions (for a total of 14.5-20% of global emissions) – recalls the Unep Report – We need to change the way we produce and consume the food we eat due to its growing impact on climate change, particularly in high- and middle-income countries. While many approaches are available to address the negative impacts of animal agriculture, This report specifically examines new alternatives to conventional animal-based foods“.

The issue is always the same, the one that pits rich countries against poor countries at Cop28: the former consume too much, the latter claim the right to do so according to their growth rates. “The impact of the growing demand for animal-based foods occurs in the context of unsustainable agricultural methods and excessive consumption, especially in middle- and high-income countries – specifies UNEP -. Overall, production and consumption contribute significantly to climate change, air and water pollution, biodiversity loss and land degradation.” Then there are the health consequences: “Animal meats are an important source of nutrition, but high consumption of red and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of disease. Large-scale factory farming has also been associated with public health risks such as zoonotic diseases and antimicrobial resistance, as well as animal welfare concerns,” the report recalls.

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Why UNEP recommends research

Is new plant-based meat a solution? “Cultured meat and fermented foods show potential for reduced environmental impact compared to many animal meats. – says Unep – They also show that they reduce the risk of zoonoses and of antimicrobial resistance significantly, as well as reducing animal welfare concerns associated with conventional animal agriculture.”

UNEP therefore recommends funding research in this sense and accompanying it with policies capable of guaranteeing that it is not just some (generally the richest) who benefit from the reduction of animal meat. The Report summarizes it clearly: “Further research is needed to understand the socioeconomic and nutritional potential of new alternatives to animal meat. Policymakers could also help maximize the benefits by taking measures to safeguard food security, employment, livelihoods, social equity and cultures”.

UNEP also suggests how politics should act: “Governments have numerous policy options to explore and support the potential of novel alternatives to animal meat, including support for (open access) research, commercialization and just transition policies. If supported by adequate regulatory regimes and governance tools – concludes the Report -, New plant-based alternatives to meat can play an important role, probably with regional differences, in a shift towards more sustainable food systemshealthier and less harmful to animals”.