What is the ‘protein transition’? Untangling the narratives

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

The specifics of what a protein transition would mean are not agreed on, the study found. Image Source/Getty Images
The specifics of what a protein transition would mean are not agreed on, the study found. Image Source/Getty Images

Related tags Protein alternative protein plant-based

Talk about a ‘protein transition’ is rife in the world of food. But what exactly is a protein transition? A study by Nature Food identifies three narratives through which a protein transition is interpreted, and three potential drivers of change.

Many in industry and academia believe in the necessity to move away from conventional animal protein production and towards something else. This, broadly, is described as a ‘protein transition.’

However, given the difficulty of revolutionising a ten-thousand-year-old food system for eight billion people fast enough to slow the global effects of climate change, this is naturally easier said than done.

Nature Food, in a review of 33 articles, found three main aims of a protein transition: mitigating the effects of animal protein production on the environment, feeding a growing population, and preventing animal suffering.

From these emerged three major narratives, or ways of talking about the protein transition. Firstly, the consumer narrative, which focuses on changing diets and puts the consumer centre-stage; the technocentric narrative, focusing on the development of new and better protein production systems; and the ‘socio-technological’ narrative, which poses organisations, governments and lobby groups as the drivers of change.

Looking at high-income countries, specifically members of the OECD, the study looked at the paths laid out by these narratives, and academia’s general conception of what a protein transition would mean.  

Consumption and the consumer

The most prominent narrative, appearing in 13 of the 33 assessed articles, was the idea that the protein transition centred around the consumer and consumption.

The narrative posits the consumer as the main agent of change. The protein transition will be initiated by the consumer, according to this narrative. Such change will be provoked through awareness campaigns highlighting the benefits of alternative proteins, as well as the promotion of smaller portions of meat and meatless days.

Some articles promote the adoption of new diets, such as vegetarianism, and some suggest the promotion of cooking skills to enhance consumer ability to adopt alternative diets.

Technology and innovation

The narrative centred around technology appeared in 10 of the 33 articles. For this narrative, it is industry - which produces technology and transform value chains - that is the agent of change.

It is up to industry, according to this narrative, to develop resource efficient protein production, and reduce negative impacts of production.

The protein transition here is centred around the development of new alternatives to proteins, such as plant-based proteins, insects, and seaweed, as well as a transformation in the infrastructure which exists to develop protein.  

Bottom-down change

Finally, the socio-technological transition narrative appeared in eight of the 33 articles. This narrative emphasises the importance not only of consumers and industry but of other actors such as lobby groups, governments, and retailers.

A focus on the adoption of new protein regimes and regulatory frameworks runs through this narrative, as well as redirecting public and private money towards a protein transition. In short, it is policy that is centre stage in this narrative.

Defining the transition

Despite clear narratives running through most of the articles, 13 out of the 33 papers assessed were unable to define the protein transition.

Even those who did manage to define it often disagreed. Some saw the transition as one moving towards the consumption of a range of alternative proteins, while others focused solely on plant-based proteins.

The study points out that all but two of the papers assessed saw food as a ‘single macronutrient,’ leaving out protein’s diverse origins. This, the study suggests, leaves out the ‘multiple roles husbandry provides’, such as its role in soil fertility management, ecosystem services and the ‘circular flow of materials in agriculture.’ It stresses instead the importance of specifying the types of proteins considered and whether a transition lies in their substitution or reduction.

Sourced: Nature Food
'A systematic review of the definitions, narratives and paths forwards for a protein transition in high-income countries’
Published on: 3 January 2024
Doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-023-00906-7
Authors: O. Duluins & P. V. Baret

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