February 12, 2020

Hamburger Wednesday, ‘Got milk?’: meat and dairy products are an integral part of most people’s diet. Unfortunately, the environmental impact of meat and dairy production is immense: the branch is responsible for 16.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, equal to all internal combustion engines combined. Plant-based proteins have a much lower environmental impact. Utrecht University will therefore join Delft University of Technology and Wageningen UR and commercial parties including Unilever and Danone Nutricia Research to study what is needed to convince consumers to switch to plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products. The study has received an NWO grant of one million euros.

“Policymakers have many a number of plans for cleaner energy and transport sectors, but much less attention has been paid to the agricultural sector”, according to Prof. Marko Hekkert from the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University. Prof. Hekkert leads the research programme ‘Accelerating the Transition to Plant-based Proteins’. “Proteins are an essential element of our daily nutrition, so we can’t just leave them out. But what if we could convince the consumer to choose plant-based proteins instead? They score 4 to 100 times better than meat and dairy products.”

MULTIDISCIPLINARY

Hekkert and his fellow researchers are therefore curious about consumers’ motives for choosing plant-based proteins or other sources. They would also like to know which technical conditions are necessary for the ‘protein transition’. The study will therefore involve a wide range of disciplines, including innovation sciences, psychology, consumer studies and industrial design.

METHANE
Why has so little attention been paid to CO reduction in livestock farming? “Probably because there’s so little potential for profit. You can make many industrial processes carbon-neutral, but it’s quite a bit more difficult when those processes occur inside livestock. Ruminants convert grass into food, and that automatically involves huge emissions of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.”

MARKET SHARE
The market for plant-based meat and dairy replacements is growing rapidly at the moment. One example is Beyond Meat, an American producer of plant-based hamburgers. When Beyond Meat began trading on the American stock exchange on 2 May 2019, its share price increased by 163% within 24 hours. “But the total market share for plant-based meat replacements is still very small”, Hekkert cautions. “It’s only around 1% of the size of the market for meat.”

BEHAVIOURAL RESEARCH
The research grant for Accelerating the Transition to Plant-based Proteins was provided by the NWO programme ‘Transitions and Behaviour’, which focuses specifically on behavioural research to realise and accelerate transitions.

Source: Universiteit Utrecht