Sustainable and circular bioeconomy for food systems transformation

The need for guidance on alternative proteins highlighted to Codex Alimentarius Commission


New protein sources may offer tantalizing potential to meet nutritional and environmental goals, but also come with challenges and risks

The world’s population is projected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050 from 7.9 billion today. One of our greatest challenges will be to feed these extra people with adequate, safe, sustainable, and nutritious food that is produced, consumed and disposed of in a way that safeguards our precious natural ecosystems.

FAO’s work on bioeconomy for sustainable food and agriculture is providing knowledge and expertise to global decision makers on how to achieve this objective using biological resources. While there is no one-size-fits-all model towards sustainable agri-food system transformation, there are some exciting developments and innovations that may prove to be game-changers at a national, regional and global level. Alternative proteins are among the most promising.

What are alternative proteins and why are they such a big deal?

Alternative proteins include microbial proteins (microalgae and mycoproteins), insect-based proteins, so-called cell-based meat, plant-based meat substitutes, and dairy alternatives. Some of the aforementioned are traditional yet undervalued proteins, while others are biotechnological innovations. These alternative protein sources present enticing opportunities for partially substituting protein sources coming from unsustainable agri-food practices – such as intensive livestock farming or overfishing – while also potentially helping to reduce the environmental and carbon footprint of agriculture and playing a role in increasing food security.

Producers and consumers are already taking note. Plant-based meat substitutes can now be found in fast food restaurants around the world, animal cell-based meat is being tested with consumers in a number of countries ranging from Singapore to Israel, and insect protein bars are on supermarket shelves in the European Union and other regions. And that’s just for starters – the alternative proteins market is projected to grow from the current 13 million metric tonnes a year to 97 million metric tonnes by 2035, reaching a market value of at least USD 290 billion by 2035.

Challenges pointed out to Codex Alimentarius Commission

The alternative proteins market offers myriad opportunities for high value nutritional products potentially coming with a lower environmental footprint. It also responds to shifts in dietary patterns and increasing demand from consumers for more ethically sourced products.

However, while many different types of alternative proteins are widely available, often coming with (sometimes unsubstantiated) claims regarding nutritional and environmental benefits, there are still significant knowledge gaps when it comes to these new food sources. At the same time, guidelines and standards governing this burgeoning sector are incomplete. This presents a number of questions, including: Are these novel products as nutritious as claimed? Are they safe to eat? Will consumers want to eat them? What is their real environmental and carbon footprint? Are there unintended consequences associated with shifting away from traditional protein production practices towards new ones?

Questions such as the above prompted FAO and WHO to submit a discussion paper (Agenda Item 8.1) on new[1] food sources and production systems (NFPS) to the 44th Session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), which took place on 8–17 November 2021. The discussion paper draws attention to the new challenges brought about by NFPS and, specifically from a food safety and quality point of view, notes “the importance of identifying and evaluating impacts arising from global changes and of adapting risk management options to emerging food safety risks”. It calls on the CAC for further support and guidance on NFPS and for “Codex to be proactive and “future-proof” ensuring that it continues to contribute towards the global public good”.

FAO taking a proactive and balanced approach to alternative proteins

FAO is already taking steps to address some of the knowledge gaps and information asymmetries relating to opportunities and risks of alternative proteins. The Organization recently published a report looking at edible insects from a food safety perspective. Further, the FAO Bioeconomy team is currently finalizing a major two-year literature review focusing on the opportunities, challenges and risks of alternative proteins, due to be published in early 2022. Alternative proteins will also be one of the key areas of focus of FAO’s new programme priority area on Bioeconomy for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, in particular with regard to supporting the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal target 12.2 (Sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources). Finally, alternative proteins will be the topic of the next International Sustainable Bioeconomy Working Group webinar planned for February 2022, part of the Circular Bioeconomy for Agri-food Systems Transformation series hosted by FAO.

[1] New foods denote those that have not been widely consumed either because they have recently emerged into the global retail space thanks to technological innovations, or because their consumption has been historically restricted to specific regions in the world.

Photo credit: Israel Mission to the UN Agencies in Rome (


Further reading:

From lab to market

How sea cucumbers are boosting the bioeconomy in Zanzibar

Aspirational Principles and Criteria for a Sustainable Bioeconomy

Bioeconomy for a Sustainable Future

How to Mainstream Sustainability and Circularity into the Bioeconomy


FAO Sustainable and Circular Bioeconomy

Codex Alimentarius