Getting Farmers On Board For Alternative Proteins
Farmers face severe threats to their livelihoods from climate change. And yet, they are the instruments of a good portion of this change. One recent estimate calculates that almost one-fifth of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) comes from intensively-produced animal products. Farming animals for food is also inefficient. It takes up three-quarters of the world’s farmland and produces just 18% of the world’s calories.
ProVeg International is an advocacy organization with a mission to reduce the global consumption of animals by 50% by 2040. In this report, they interviewed 20 farming group representatives mainly from the U.S. and Europe to gauge their beliefs about transitioning from traditional animal farming to alternative protein systems. They were specifically interested in hearing about farmers’ main opportunities, motivations, and challenges.
Farmers are already feeling the effects of climate change through reduced crop yields and increasing weather volatility. Health concerns, along with increasing awareness of agriculture’s impact on the environment, are changing consumer preferences in the Global North. Demand for animal-based foods is falling. Adding to farmers’ challenges are increasing industry consolidation and intensification. Furthermore, many governments are changing their agriculture subsidies to reward pro-environmental practices.
Growing and producing alternative proteins can protect farmers from climate change while substantially impacting agriculture’s environmental impacts. However, to make the switch, farmers would need support from automation, AI, and regenerative farming techniques. Every farm is unique. The land and location shape what can be grown based on resources and the local climate. If carried out effectively, benefits could include reducing GHGs by 13% while the industry itself becomes a net negative source of emissions.
The ProVeg interviews found divisions over the cultural aspects of switching to alternative proteins, as many farmers view their traditional methods as a core part of their identity. Also, these changes would not be risk-free. Growing new crops is inherently uncertain, and dependence on new technology increases the dangers. However, there was a general agreement that farmers would be highly motivated to transition with the right financial rewards. Alternative protein solutions could include:
Transitioning From Dairy Cows to Alternative Protein Crops
Some land will immediately be suitable for different crops. Other lands will require regeneration to restore fertility to the landscape. Land that’s unsuitable for growing any plants can be repurposed to agroforestry or possibly ecotourism.
Producing Plant-Based Milks With Crops Grown On-Site
Consumers are increasingly shifting towards plant-based milks. Farmers could capture more revenue by processing their crops on-site rather than allowing large manufacturers to reap these rewards. This could also apply to vegetables; in other words, vegetable farmers could install production equipment to process products themselves. These strategies could help diversify risk and improve financial returns.
There are two types of fermentation that farmers could use. Precision fermentation produces specific ingredients used in other parts of food production such as meat or dairy substitutes. Biomass fermentation creates alternatives to animal meat such as Quorn. The authors point out that fermentation can be cost-effective as fermented materials can often grow on waste products like potato peels.
Also known as cultivated meat, cell-based meat, or cellular agriculture, this technology has the potential to reduce the climate impact of food by as much as 92%. Cultured meat is still meat, but not derived from living animals. The authors suggest that animal farmers can retrofit their farms to install cultured meat production equipment. However, this alternative will likely face the most cultural obstacles from farmers, many of whom view it as unnatural. It’s especially seen as threatening to the identities of rural farmers, even though these farmers tend to suffer the most as agriculture becomes increasingly intensified and would therefore benefit the most from embracing cultured protein.
This farming solution requires a large amount of capital but doesn’t require fertile, flat, arable land. Thus, it may be a good option for cow ranchers. Vertical farms could be largely automated and produce several crops per year compared to most traditionally-planted crops that can only be harvested once annually. The report includes a testimonial from one former chicken farmer who has now become a sustainable and profitable hemp farmer using a vertical system.
Aquaculture requires large amounts of land to grow algae. In Kenya, farmers are already growing spirulina, an algal source of protein and nutrients. Spirulina is increasing in popularity as a dietary supplement. However, algae production and harvesting are notoriously labor-intensive and time consuming. Former animal farmers may not be willing to invest the effort required for a profitable industry. One way to address these challenges is to team up with buyers to invest in automated processing equipment, which may also reduce costs.
This is not a single style of farming but an approach that uses environmentally-friendly techniques such as organic fertilizers, crop rotations, and soil regeneration to promote sustainable crop yields. These approaches can be applied to both animal and plant farming. For example, some animal farmers use their animals to improve soil health. However, bio-cyclic vegan regeneration can eliminate the use of animals altogether. This process employs organic plant matter to increase the humus layer in soil.
Carbon Credits For Alternative Land Uses
While many feedlot farms are well-suited to transition to fermentation or cellular agriculture, for traditional farms covering large amounts of grazing land, the path forward is less clear. One option is planting trees to sequester carbon and being paid as an emissions reduction program. However, there are many logistical details to work out before this can be adopted on a large scale.
Overall, it seems that there are a lot of avenues for change when it comes to transitioning away from animal farms. Before this becomes the norm, though, there are many challenges that need to be addressed. Most importantly, farmers emphasized that they won’t be able to transition unless they have better access to knowledge and methods as well as opportunities in place to reduce the dangers associated with changing their businesses. Animal advocates can urge academics, policy-makers, and industry insiders to make knowledge-sharing the norm, and to promote partnerships and other opportunities to address the needs of transitioning farmers.
One possibility might be to find farming leaders in a given community and encourage them to test alternative proteins in their operation so other farmers can learn from them. Another approach is to work with policy-makers to improve access to finance for farmers willing to try new methods. Fostering food cooperatives is yet another route that paves the way for sustainable farming. What all of these ideas have in common is de-risking. Farmers will try new things, but the risks to their livelihoods must be mitigated. Perhaps this is where advocates can best use their voices.