If you’ve been to the United States recently, you may have observed something interesting in restaurants and on the news channels in relation to burgers and, more generally, protein. Burgers that look and taste like those made from beef, but are made from plants, are appearing on menus across the country, and lab-grown meat (not currently available to buy) is being described as the potential next frontier in ethical eating.

To some, the future has arrived. To others, it may seem a passing fad, the latest in a long string of ever-changing diets promoted by celebrities and capitalized on by start-ups. Remember the cabbage soup diet, or the 2014 New Yorker article suggesting we had reached the end of food? Are these protein trends the same?

Demand for plant-based protein is growing around the world.
Image: Based on Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN data

What’s going on?

With growing public attention on the need to tackle climate change, how we produce and consume food – particularly resource-intensive, animal-based protein – has been increasingly identified as an area where focused change can significantly reduce our impact.

And yet for consumers and organizations it can be a challenge to make sense of how it impacts their everyday lives. How we produce and consume food brings the threats and shocks of climate change to life for many of us. Consumer consciousness on resource-intensive animal protein has been identified as a significant lever for reducing our climate footprint; however, this must go hand-in-hand with a food system designed to deliver on sustainable, affordable, nutritious protein for the growing population.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Over the past few years, start-ups have focused on replicating the taste and texture of beef, chicken and other animal-based products – most recently seafood – using plants such as soy and peas as the base ingredients rather than animal meat. The intent is to curb the environmental impact of emissions, water and land use, among other environmental concerns.

These new products are not intended to be a consolation prize for the vegetarian joining dinner. Rather, many of these products target the plate of the masses – and in the United States, they seek to capture 95% of the population that isn’t vegetarian.

But the so-called veggie burger is not new. Some carnivores may remember tasting – and likely rejecting – the veggie burgers of the past because they didn’t match the taste or the nutrition they were seeking from their meat. Since those earlier tastings, however, a few things have changed, with this generation of veggie burgers coming closer and closer to mimicking their meaty counterparts – from look, to taste, to nutrient profiles – with a fraction of the environmental resources required to produce them. For these reasons, we feel this trend is here to stay.

Accelerating Climate Action

A 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found we have until 2030 – just 11 more years – to avert climate change.

The run-up to 2020 is a crucial period for delivering sufficient climate action to limit global warming to 1.5°C, as countries move to expand their climate commitments.

To help meet this global challenge, the World Economic Forum's 2019 Sustainable Development Impact summit has made Accelerating Climate Action one of four focus areas.

Following the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit this month, this meeting will bring together stakeholders to cap global warming at 1.5°C through innovative partnerships and smart technologies. The action areas include heavy industries and transport, energy innovation, nature-based climate solutions, restoring ocean health and the role cities, among others.

Why the explosion of plant-based protein?

First, innovation. Recent alternative protein advancements have drawn parallels to software, with frequent “updates” to taste and texture as processes and ingredients are refined. And this is only the start of the opportunities for updates and reboots. Market leaders are already discussing future improvements to nutrition profiles, such as lowering sodium and unsaturated fat, and gearing production to allow for diversity in base ingredients such that this nascent industry can be built on crops locally available or in unplanned abundance.

Second, distribution. Start-ups are partnering with fast-food restaurants, big brands and food service providers to bring meatless meat to new locations significantly faster than they could by building the infrastructure and distribution channels alone. These partnerships are providing a critical first step in making products accessible to the masses.

Third, markets. Beyond Meat’s blockbuster IPO has ignited the plant-based food industry, and these markets have started to provide much-needed capital infusions to continue to expand and. And investors are finding more reasons to back these innovations, with expectations the investment trends will continue.

Investment in plant-based protein is growing.
Image: The Good Food Institute

What is the World Economic Forum doing?

As the international organization for public-private cooperation, the World Economic Forum has been shaping the future of the food systems to be more inclusive, sustainable, nutritious, healthy and efficient. Our project Meat: the Future looks at the challenge of providing universally accessible and affordable, healthy and sustainable protein to a growing population.

But our efforts go beyond the collaborations and insights we bring to our stakeholders: we must walk the talk.

This is why the World Economic Forum has chosen to provide participants with a low-carbon, locally sourced (within 100 miles), plant-forward selection of menus during our Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York. The ‘plant-forward’ concept has been defined by the Culinary Institute of America as "a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes and celebrates, but is not limited to, plant-based foods". Leftovers will be redistributed.

Our menu will showcase plant-based protein, leveraging traditional ingredients, such as beans and tofu alongside more novel ones such as alga spirulina, which was shown to have preferential outcomes across environment and health factors in our recently published report on Alternative Proteins.

The health effects of consuming an additional portion of different alternative proteins.
The effect of alternative proteins on human health.
Image: World Economic Forum

This menu complements past efforts to showcase some of the more sophisticated plant-based options (such as Impossible Foods in Davos in 2018). Importantly, food systems are local and the menu recognises the context in New York, and this week in particular as participants gather for the UN General Assembly.

The World Economic Forum – like many of you – is trying to reduce the impact our food has on the planet. We hope you join us!