New report: Alternative proteins hold key to Europe’s self-sufficiency

New report finds shift towards plant-based, cultivated and fermentation-made food could reduce reliance on imports by up to 75%, and calls on policymakers to help farmers seize opportunities offered by alternative proteins. 

13 May 2024

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A new report finds alternative proteins could boost Europe’s food self-sufficiency and provide huge opportunities for farmers to benefit from a shift towards extensive practices like organic agriculture.

A New Land Dividend, written by the Green Alliance think tank and commissioned by nonprofit the Good Food Institute Europe, shows that shifting towards a higher uptake of home-grown plant-based, cultivated and fermentation-made food would restore levels of protein self-sufficiency not seen in Europe since the 1990s.

The analysis reveals how agricultural land use could change based on modest or ambitious increases in the consumption of these foods by 2050.

It examines 10 of the biggest agricultural countries in Europe – Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the UK – and finds they collectively rely on twice as much foreign land (elsewhere in Europe and beyond) for imports compared to the domestic land they use to produce exports.

Because alternative proteins need less land than is required for conventional meat or dairy, they could help to satisfy demand for these foods while making more space available for other agricultural uses. The study finds that a shift towards alternative proteins would enable nearly every country studied to eliminate its overall reliance on farmland in other countries to feed their own populations. 

This would reduce the land these countries collectively require for imports by up to 75%, equivalent to nearly 60 million hectares – an area bigger than Spain.

The report also finds that even a modest shift away from dairy and processed conventional meat towards alternative proteins – in line with the current steady growth in plant-based food consumption – could provide European farmers with the space to adopt more extensive practices. This could at least double the share of organically farmed land. 

A more ambitious scenario, involving supportive policies enabling cultivated meat and precision fermentation-made proteins to achieve economies of scale, would mean the proportion of organically farmed land could quadruple, to 36% of farmed land across all 10 countries. This would far exceed the EU Farm to Fork strategy’s targets and enable a significant expansion of nature restoration projects across Europe’s farmland. 

The report concludes that a shift to alternative proteins is essential for being able to expand agroecological farming in Europe without increasing reliance on imports.

Restoring natural carbon sinks such as forests and wetlands would in turn make Europe less reliant on expensive engineered greenhouse gas removals – technologies such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) – to achieve net zero goals, saving these countries as much as €21 billion a year.

Dustin Benton, Policy Director at Green Alliance, said: “Alternative proteins offer the prospect of an unprecedented land dividend in Europe, with a huge opportunity to improve rural incomes, increase food self-sufficiency, restore nature, and limit climate change. But politicians need to invest in alternative proteins and support farmers to use their land differently, to make the most of the opportunity.”

Elena Walden, Senior Policy Manager at the Good Food Institute Europe, said: “This report finds Europe is living beyond its means when it comes to land use, and we can’t sustain today’s intensive meat and dairy production while meeting other self-sufficiency and environmental priorities. 

“This isn’t an either/or debate – alternative proteins have the potential to satisfy some of Europe’s demand for meat and dairy while using much less land. With the right support from policymakers, these foods can open up the breathing space our farmers need to adopt more nature-friendly farming methods while boosting Europe’s self-sufficiency.”