Four MSc Leiden University students in Governance of Sustainability (GoS) will investigate the socio-environmental and economic impacts of plant-based and animal-based protein products through their project “The Protein Transition: A Case for Food Systems Sustainability?” In doing so, they hope to provide a holistic approach on the position the protein transition should hold within a sustainable food systems transition to the Centre for Sustainability’s Agrifood Hub at Leiden, Delft and Erasmus Rotterdam Universities.

They will present their findings via a series of articles. I asked them to share their personal motivations to take up on this challenge.

Vivien Vent, GoS Student from Hamburg, Germany
Coming from a family in the food industry, I have been familiar with the challenges faced by the food sector, not only in terms of production costs, but also in terms of sustainability. The efforts going into building a sustainable supply chain are complex, which is why this project appealed to me. It focuses on how to make one of the most essential parts of the sector — the cultivation of the food — more sustainable, not just environmentally, but also socially. It provides insights on the current state of our agricultural systems with a focus on protein sources, but also on how to improve them and secure them for future generations. This is also where another point of interest of mine comes into play: the biodiversity of seeds and their wild relatives. Conserving and increasing genetic biodiversity in crops is of utmost importance when it comes to ensuring food security in the future, by making the crops more resilient towards the adverse effects of climate change. This will affect all plant-based crops, therefore also the possibility of a protein transition towards a more plant-based diet and a more sustainable agricultural system, which is in turn necessary for keeping the effects of climate change in check.

Clémentine DECLE-CLASSEN, GoS student and Socio-Environmental Justice Young Professional, from Lille, France
Looking at the plate of our society, and considering the phrase, “you are what you eat”, then it can be argued that the global food system is arguably bloody, murderous, wasteful, oppressive, unhealthy, undemocratic, sexist, racist, unequal, toxic, speciesist, anthropocentric, ecocidal — aka unsustainable.
To sugar coat, the food system appears to me as the first manifestation of socio-environmental injustices and of the toxic relationship human society’s hegemonic model perpetuates with itself and the rest of nature. This ranges from inequalities in what one can afford to eat and the impact it has on one’s health, to the commodification of non-dominant humans and non-human animals across the food supply chain for the interests of the few. Having this personal interest, an obsession with justice, and a passion for combining scientific research with policymaking, looking into whether the protein transition makes a case for a biophysically sound and ethically just food system for the Agrifood Hub was a compelling opportunity.

Simon Wessels, GoS student, from Lower Saxony, Germany
Growing up in a rural area in the northwest of Germany, agriculture has left an impression on me since my early childhood. However, my interest in food systems, sustainability, and agriculture policy was sparked during an internship at a German state representation to the EU in Brussels. Getting the opportunity to gain insight into the inner workings of EU agriculture policymaking, researching current policy developments, and connecting to stakeholders, broadened my horizon and my understanding of the complexities within our food systems.
The protein transition is a topic that is quite personal to me, not only because I have been living as a vegan for several years now but also because I believe that a protein transition is a necessary step towards an agri-food sector that provides healthy and affordable food while supporting environmental sustainability and farmers’ livelihoods. Market and policy developments in Europe have promoted unsustainable growth in the agri-food industry and a race to the bottom for environmental and labour standards. To me, an ideal food system values all those involved in the production, values nature, and values the food itself. Moving away from hyper-industrialized production and mindless consumption might be the first, important step towards this objective.

Ana-Maria Gatejel, GoS student, Coordinator at Conscious Kitchen, from Transylvania, Roumania
I would define my interest in food systems and food sustainability as going beyond just an academic and professional interest. I recognise myself as coming from a peasant family from Transylvania, thus issues surrounding food provisioning play an intimate role in my motivation to work on environmental sustainability and food systems. Over the years, my experience with food provisioning shifted from playing an active role in household self-sufficiency to becoming an urban food activist. Being part of Conscious Kitchen — a youth-led collective raising awareness and providing solutions to consumer food waste – I became hyper aware of the ills of the modern food system model and thus my engagement in sustainability, ecology, and politics.

The topic of the protein transition intrigues me as it has the potential to open the space for a nuanced debate on what constitutes a desirable, truly sustainable food system. The topic of societal transitions is complex, and so is the food system. Hence, I quickly became aware that protein transition requires moving beyond a dietary recommendation into shifting production and distribution practices, while being aware of the power relations impacting people’s food security. The question for me is not if we need a protein transition, as that is obvious when we are measuring the impact of industrialised animal farming on the planetary boundaries. The question, is how to not perpetuate the unsustainable top-down extractivist and productivist model altogether and re-think our food systems rooted in human and non-human rights and food sovereignty?