Smart Protein at COP27: Let’s talk about Alternative Proteins


Smart Protein Project Manager Dr Jacqueline Lyons attended COP27, the UN climate-change summit at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt last month, on behalf of the Smart Protein project. Here, she shares her main takeaways from the event.

COP is a unique conference where people from different countries and backgrounds come together to discuss the countless aspects of climate change from local and global perspectives. It’s not all high-level negotiations – although these are the most anticipated outcomes from the conference – it’s also a platform for entrepreneurs, activists, academics, and policy makers to discuss and accelerate climate-change solutions. There is a great energy at COP and it’s highly interactive – the shuttle bus to and from the venue was alive with people swapping contact details and recommending sessions to attend.

For the first time ever, this year’s conference hosted ‘pavilions’ (individually designed pop-up spaces that hold about 40 people) dedicated to food systems change. Key among these was the Food4Climate Pavilion organised by global food awareness NGO, ProVeg International, in conjunction with 17 other partners from around the world.

It was at this pavilion that I co-hosted a mid-week session with representatives from our three ‘sister projects’ – NextGenProteins, SUSINCHAIN, and ProFuture – all of which are funded under the same H2020 Alternative Proteins call.

We outlined the challenges currently facing EU food systems in four main areas – climate change and environmental degradation, food security and food waste, public health, and farming – and discussed how alternative proteins could be used to help mitigate against these. We highlighted specific policy actions that could be implemented to better support the development of alternative proteins in the EU within the framework of available policy and regulatory tools – such as including defined sustainability criteria in the EU’s Public Procurement Directive, and establishing common definitions of vegan and vegetarian foods for food-labelling purposes in the Food Information to Consumers regulation. Leveraging tax instruments (such as VAT rates) and state subsidies to drive the shift towards more sustainable diets was also discussed, as was the need for increased R&D funding for plant-based innovation.

Our discussion was based on the alternative-proteins policy brief that is currently being finalised by ProVeg International as a Smart Protein project deliverable. The policy brief is due to be published in early 2023, under the direction of the ProVeg EU Policy Manager, and will be distributed to relevant parties, including influential members of parliaments who sit on agricultural or environmental committees. We look forward to following its progress.

It is now widely accepted that without addressing food systems at the UN level, global climate targets such as those set out in the Paris Agreement will not be met. There was a sense at COP27 that food and agriculture is just beginning to take up the space it deserves on the agenda. According to a report by CarbonBrief1, subsidiary body chairs reported that agriculture “took more meeting time than any other item at COP27”. One point discussed at length was the concept of broadening the scope of the UN Joint Work on Agriculture to take a ‘complete food-systems perspective’ – something already firmly embedded in the farm-to-fork approach taken with the Smart Protein project.

We know that food and agriculture have huge potential for tackling climate change, and attending this conference re-affirmed to me how uniquely positioned Smart Protein is to deliver on this. Through its work on organic regenerative agriculture, developing innovative and sustainable food products, studying consumer attitudes to alternative proteins, and driving policy change, Smart Protein is at the heart of the much-needed food systems re-think that is so critical to addressing climate issues.

In addition to hosting our pavilion session, personal highlights for me included listening to world leaders as they delivered their climate change pledges, and subsequently speaking with the Irish Prime Minister about Smart Protein and its goals. I attended a very impactful session on climate justice hosted by Mary Robinson (a former President of Ireland). Her panel included a farmer from Uganda who clearly described the deadly impact of climate change on her world, and a mother from a low-lying (two metres above sea level) Pacific Island who spoke of how her children would not get to live on the land her family has inhabited for generations. It was sobering to listen to the experiences of those facing the harshest realities of climate degradation.

Of course, it was also exciting to experience the Sinai landscape for the first time, with its blue skies, red desert mountains, and wonderful coral reefs. The Egyptian food was delicious too – with many of the traditional dishes based on beans, lentils and chickpeas, the food culture is naturally largely plant-based. As remarked at one conference session, ‘plant-based eating is nothing new in Africa’.

In summary, it was a unique week full of new perspectives and insights. I’m grateful to Smart Protein for having had the opportunity to attend.