The protein transition

26 September 2022

Sunday, September 25 marked a historic day for the Slow Food movement, as we held our first ever conference dedicated to the protein transition.

While this has been a long time coming, we kicked off with a carefully-considered panorama of perspectives—making up for lost time!

Becky Ramsing, Senior Program officer at John’s Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, reminded us of a simple, immutable fact: planetary boundaries. “If we look at our emissions from agriculture in 2010, and project them out to 2050, the way things are going we’d be using up all of our annual ‘carbon budget’ in agriculture alone. And right now agriculture accounts for around a third of our total emissions, half of which is attributable to livestock. Plant cultivation emits significantly less in order to produce the same amount of protein as we get from meat.”

power relationships must change

Nick Jacobs, Director of IPES Food, underlined global inequalities. “We often hear in the West a defense of eating meat because it’s ‘part of who we are’, yet meat consumption has doubled since the 1960s. That’s not some inalienable cultural right: it’s artificial. Meanwhile, there are people in the Global South who live with protein deficiency quite simply because they live in poverty, and cannot afford enough protein. We’re also told that lab-grown meat or fake meat can solve our problems with an easy fix, but if we have the same value chains, power relationships and workers’ rights abuses in those industries as we have in the real meat industry, then that won’t solve the root causes of any of the related social problems.”

No more ‘meat substitutes’!

Food content creator Julis Fiedler, better known on Instagram as bakinghermann, railed against “veganized” versions of classic meals based on animal protein. “If you offer people vegan food which is simply a pale imitation of meat, then it will never work. The idea of ‘meat substitutes’ is redundant. If you offer people plant-based meals that are healthy, delicious, and rooted in traditional food cultures, people will want to eat them as a matter of course, and won’t pay as much attention to the idea that they don’t contain meat. Protein transition needs to begin with the idea of all the proteins we stand to gain by looking at the world of plants with greater curiosity, and not with the idea of the proteins we lose by rejecting meat and dairy.”

the youth demand plant-based food

Valentina Taglietti, Food Policy Manager at MenoPerPiù (Less for More), described the work of her project, which aims to improve plant-based options in school, university and work canteens. “The problem so often is that the only plant-based options available are pasta with tomato sauce, white rice or some cold, unseasoned, unappetizing salad with chickpeas out of a can. There’s no way we’ll spur protein transition with such unpleasant, boring options. At the same time, the youngest generation are the most concerned about the climate crisis, and want to eat more sustainably. To that end we’re collaborating with the Slow Beans network to bring plant-based biodiversity into school canteens across the country, offering training and workshops both online and offline to canteen staff to help Italy’s kitchens shift their approach to protein.”

The all-pervasive marketing of the meat industry, and the society-wide normalization of the over-consumption of animal protein are formidable obstacles, but with a strong alliance of actors all dedicated to shifting the paradigm, Slow Food aims and hopes to be on the front line of a protein transition that will benefit our health and that of the planet, as well as reducing needless animal suffering.

Terra Madre Salone del Gusto is in Parco Dora, Turin, from September 22-26, 2022, with over 600 exhibitors and a series of workshops, conferences and tastings that show how we can regenerate our planet through food.

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