On 19 October 2023, the European Parliament voted in favour of its own report, endorsing an EU Protein Strategy that champions sustainable production and aims to reduce reliance on suppliers from third countries.
European Parliament's vision for an EU Protein Strategy to achieve sustainability and food security.
Over the past decade, the alternative proteins market has experienced significant growth. With consumers' increasing interest in meat alternatives, numerous businesses have invested in plant-based products and food-technology alternatives to animal proteins. This growth however has hit a roadblock in recent years, partly due to the cost-of-living crisis, which has driven consumers towards more affordable food options.
Simultaneously, European policymakers have been focussing on making the food system more sustainable and affordable while ensuring food security. Environmental concerns indeed have intensified, pressing policymakers to devise measures that make the food system more friendly towards the planet, while events like the conflict in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed the EU's dependence on critical products such as plant proteins, underscoring the need to address this issue urgently.
Against this backdrop, the European Parliament has voted on its own-initiative report calling for the development of a comprehensive and ambitious EU Protein Strategy. Here are key takeaways from the resolution that the plant-based and alternative proteins industry should take note of.
Emphasis on both plant and animal-based protein
The report advocates for a strategy built around five key goals: increasing EU protein production, improving production conditions, promoting a circular economy that recognises the complementary roles of both plant-based and animal proteins, and adopting a holistic approach that encompasses the entire food value chain.
Despite criticism from environmental groups regarding the environmental impact of animal-based protein and the European Commission's call for a shift towards a more plant-based diet as part of its Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F), the report defends the role of animal protein in the diet and healthy ecosystems and refrains from promoting plant-based products over animal-based ones.
Ambivalence towards novel proteins
While there has been significant progress and interest in novel protein sources in recent years, the Parliament does not extensively address these new products and maintains a cautious stance. Regarding insect-based protein, for example, the Parliament acknowledges its potential as an alternative protein source but emphasises its role in animal nutrition over human consumption. The report goes on to recognise that regulatory burdens hinder the use of insects in food and feed but then stresses the need to analyse the environmental, health, animal welfare, social and economic impact of their breading.
The Parliament's position on cell-based products is also ambiguous. The report identifies ethical, social, environmental, and economic challenges associated with these products and criticises the Novel Food regulation as inadequate to evaluate these products. It therefore calls for the development of an appropriate legislative framework for their evaluation but makes no further mention of this technology.
Support for new breeding techniques
The European Parliament shows a more positive stance toward innovation when it comes to new breeding techniques. The report calls for a "regulation on new genomic techniques that allows new breeding techniques to be adopted, without increasing dominant market positions and taking into account the specific need for innovation by European SMEs."
New genomic techniques (NGTs) indeed are seen favourably as an effective tool to enhance profitability and help the EU achieve its Green Deal targets by “raising yields, boosting protein content and quality and enabling the EU to enhance the regional adaptation of crops and make them more resilient to climate change and pathogens”. NGTs have so far been governed by strict legislation that regulates genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but the Commission has proposed a new Regulation on plants produced by certain NGTs, which is currently under discussion in the Parliament and the Council.
Consumer information and acceptance as drivers for sustainability
The contribution of the plant-based and alternative proteins sectors to building a more sustainable food system is significant. Plant-based and cultivated meat products, according to the Good Food Institute Europe, address major causes of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. While the Parliament has recognised this in its report on the Farm to Fork Strategy, emphasising the role of plant protein production and alternative protein sources in addressing environmental and climate challenges, the report on the European Protein Strategy highlights the importance of improving consumer acceptance of these products and providing them with information about products' environmental footprint through a voluntary and science-based label to help them make sustainable choices.
What comes next?
Commenting on the report, rapporteur Emma Wiesner, emphasised that the EU Protein Strategy should support research and innovation and reduce regulatory burdens for the industry. The Commission is preparing a review of its protein policy, scheduled for the first quarter of 2024. There are high expectations for the benefits that such political support and drive could bring to the plant-based and alternative proteins sector. But concerns have arisen following the Commission's recent backtracking on some of its sustainability commitments, leading to fears that the review may not be ambitious and forward thinking enough.