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How Do Crickets and Algae Stack Up Against Beef?

Image Credit: Stephanie Bav

The growing world population’s increasing hunger for protein could lead to serious environmental repercussions. Livestock farming is still the primary source of protein, and has massive environmental impact compared to vegetable farming and other forms of agriculture. Beef remains the most resource-intensive to produce, but new research suggests the resource burden of other sources isn’t clean cut.

“To gauge protein security concerns, we use the concept of 'beef parity' – a measure of all of the resources needed to produce 1 kg of beef protein – as a benchmark for the resource burden of other forms of protein,” said Camilla Stice, Analyst and lead author on the new report from Lux Research.

The researchers evaluated the production of conventional protein sources including beef, chicken, salmon, soybeans, peas, and canola oil, as well as emerging alternative sources: algae and crickets. Algae is appealing because it is vegan, non-allergenic, and GMO-Free. Startups have begun developing food from crickets, particularly for grain, gluten, soy, and dairy-free products while offering comparable nutrient content and amino acids.

It takes the equivalent of nearly three gallons of gasoline to produce one kilogram of beef protein – 380 megajoules (MJ) of primary energy. In comparison, chicken and salmon require only 340 MJ/kg and 260 MJ/kg, respectively, per kilogram of protein. However, Lux Research says there are other factors to consider, particularly for new non-conventional sources of protein.

Image Credit: Lux Research.

The efficiency of each source relies on a different combination of the efficiency of these factors. Canola, for example, is more heavily dependent on irrigation rates and fertilizer application, which have significant impacts on its water use and nitrogen run-off. Algae biomass needs less land area, but there can be high electricity requirements for growth and insufficient data is available for accurate modeling.

“Our analysis demonstrates that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to protein resource use intensity. No single protein source emerges as a runaway winner, and each analyzed source has opportunities for improvement – whether in protein quality, ease of production, or overall resource intensity. Small changes to production can have cascading impacts throughout the supply chain that could mitigate resource risk or make it worse,” Stice said.

The report, De-risking Protein Strategies Using a Systems Approach: A Novel Analytical Framework, also evaluated risks and identified factors that influence protein sources’ level of risk. For example, scarcity and pricing of inputs for a given protein source vary by geography, so location can play a substantial role in risk. Country-specific risk assessments specifically for insects as food have already been conducted by several European Union member countries.

We are still learning about evaluating the impacts of our options, but it is clear that there is lots of opportunity in the future of the world’s protein supply. From burgers you’d never guess are plant-based to the possibility of bio-printing our meat, innovations are just beginning to emerge for the future of food.

Hannah Furlong is an Editorial Assistant for Sustainable Brands, based in Canada. She is researching the circular economy as a Master's student in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo and holds a Bachelor's in Environment and Business Co-op. Hannah… [Read more about Hannah Furlong]

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