Conservation Food Innovation

Protein is the new black

how your food choices can help save the planet

We are starting to see some pretty interesting dietary trends that aim to lower our meat consumption, but they are not based on the traditional ethical or health grounds, but now on environmental and climate impact grounds.

Whilst the number of people turning to vegetarianism (no meat) and veganism (no animal products) is increasing, we are also seeing the emergence of other dietary trends – flexitarian and climatarian.

If these terms are new to you, here’s a quick definition:

Flexitarian stands for flexible vegetarian, and is someone who has a mainly plant-caused diet but occasionally eats meat and animal products. The concept has been around for sometime though, and the American Dialect Society voted it the most useful word back in 2003.

A Climatarian is someone who chooses their foot based on climate footprint. We know that more greenhouses gases are emitted in the production of animal protein, and beef more than chicken, and both more than plants. So climatarians seek to reduce high-green-house-gas-emitting foods in their diet. Although not completely removing meat from their diet, the Harvard School of Public Health has recommended that climatarians consume one standard serve of meat a week, or 65g. A climaratian will also typically try to eat locally produced and sourced foods to reduce food miles and the green houses gases involved in their transport.

Driving these changes has been the increasing awareness of the environmental impact of meat consumption and the benefits of removing, or at least cutting down on, meat in our diets. I spoke recently on this topic at WOMADelaide as part of the planet talks series (Less Meat, Less Heat: Is the elephant in the room a cow?).

So lets take a look at the evidence.

white cow in cattle house
Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Environmental impact – land use and climate change

Livestock agriculture uses up a lot of natural resources and space – up to a third of the world’s ice-free land. Of the five billion hectares (12 billion acres) of the world’s agricultural land, 68% is used for livestock.

Livestock agriculture also drives 80% of deforestation worldwide and is responsible for some of the most devastating biodiversity loss on the planet.

But most of the recent focus of the environmental impact of livestock agriculture has been greenhouse gas emissions.

And it’s not all good news. Realising these projected benefits would require replacing meat with nutritionally appropriate substitutes. Animal products contain more nutrients per calorie than vegetarian staples…

Food production accounts for one-quarter to one-third of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions globally, and the the lions-share (or maybe that should be the cows-share) is due to the livestock industry, mainly due to the methane emitted by cattle and sheep.

In the US, for example, an average family of four emits more greenhouse gases due to the meat they eat than from driving two cars. So lets put that another way, shifting from a high-meat to a low-meat diet (modelled on typical UK meat consumption rates) could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by 920 kg CO2 per year; shifting from high-meat to vegetarian could reduce it by 1230 kg CO2 per year; and shifting from high-meat to vegan could reduce it by 1560 kg CO2 per year.

As a point of comparison, an economy flight between London and New York generates 960 kg CO2, while a family driving 6000 miles over ten years in a small car would generate 2440 kg CO2, roughly equivalent to two high-meat eaters switching to a vegetarian diet for a year.

Greenhouse gas impact of different agricultural products – published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.
For example, it takes about 50 onions to produce a kilogram of greenhouse gas, but only 44 grams of beef. (Image from https://theconversation.com/how-to-reduce-your-kitchens-impact-on-global-warming-68484)

 

A recent study has shown that if everyone went vegetarian that – largely thanks to the elimination of red meat – food-related greenhouse emissions would drop by about 60% – but if the world went vegan, emissions would decline by around 70%.

Health impacts

Alongside these environmental issues, are the health impacts associated with a high-meat diet.

In fact Australia is a world leader in terms of meat consumption (along with a number of other questionable environmental stats, e.g. highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita, highest small mammal extinction rates etc).

According to The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Australians consume 94.8 kg of meat per capita per year, second only to the US at 97 kg. That’s about 260 grams of meat per person per day, and is about 5 times the World Health Organisation recommended levels at 65 grams a day. The health risks associated with a high-meat diet (mainly due to the consumption of saturated fats) are related to increased risks of heart disease, strokes and cancer.

Interestingly the countries with the lowest level of meat consumption are India (4.4 kg of meat per year per person) and Bangladesh (4 kg), where vegetarianism is widespread.

So in addition to environmental issues, health issues should be pushing us to consider lowering our meat consumption or introducing meat alternatives into our diets.

Along with lowering greenhouse gas emissions, if the whole world turned vegetarian, we’d see a global mortality reduction of 6-10%, thanks to a lessening of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers.

Going vegetarian globally could create a health crisis in the developing world, because it’s not clear where the required micronutrients would come from if meat was cut out of diets…

Global vegetarianism would stave off about 7 million deaths per year. Fewer people suffering from food-related chronic illnesses would also mean a reduction in medical bills, saving about 2-3% of global gross domestic product.

But its not all good news. Realising these projected benefits would require replacing meat with nutritionally appropriate substitutes. Animal products contain more nutrients per calorie than vegetarian staples like grains and rice, so choosing the right replacement would be important, especially for the world’s estimated two billion-plus undernourished people.

Going vegetarian globally could create a health crisis in the developing world, because it’s not clear where the required micronutrients would come from if meat was cut out of diets in underdeveloped countries. In addition some cultures, e.g. Maasai in East Africa, have an almost exclusively animal-product-based diet.

 

(Credit: iStock)

Shifting the balance and redesigning our landscapes

Currently, livestock consume 36% of the calories produced by food-crops, with only 12% of those eventually finding their way into the human diet in the form of meat or dairy. If crops were grown exclusively for human consumption, it could increase food calories by 70% and could feed an additional 4 billion people. Even a small change in the distribution of crops from livestock fodder to food would dramatically increase food availability.

You couldn’t just take cows off the land and expect it to become a primary forest again on its own.

Should we all go vegetarian, ideally we would dedicate at least 80% of that pasture land to the restoration of grasslands and forests, which would capture carbon and further alleviate climate change. Converting former pastures to native habitats would likely also help support biodiversity, including for large herbivores such as buffalo that were pushed out for cattle, as well as for predators like wolves that are often killed in retaliation for attacking livestock.

The remaining 10 to 20% of former pastureland could be used for growing more crops to fill gaps in the food supply.

Both environmental restoration and conversion to plant-based agriculture would require planning and investment. You couldn’t just take cows off the land and expect it to become a primary forest again on its own.

 

Economic impact – carnivorous careers

If everyone became a committed vegetarian, there would be some serious drawbacks for millions, if not billions, of people.

It’s a tale of two worlds – In developed countries, vegetarianism would bring all sorts of environmental and health benefits – but in developing countries there would be negative effects in terms of poverty.

Should we fail to provide clear career alternatives and subsidies for former livestock-related employees, meanwhile, we would probably face significant unemployment and social upheaval – especially in rural communities with close ties to the industry.

The cultural impact of completely giving up meat would be very big, which is why efforts to reduce meat consumption have often faltered.

People formerly engaged in the livestock industry would also need assistance transitioning to a new career, whether in agriculture, helping with reforestation or producing bioenergy from crop by products currently used as livestock feed.

Some farmers could also be paid to keep livestock for environmental purposes. For example if we took all the sheep away form the Scottish highlands, the environment would look different and there would be a potential negative impact on biodiversity.

(Credit: iStock)

But even the best-laid plans probably wouldn’t be able to offer alternative livelihoods for everyone. Around one-third of the world’s land is composed of arid and semi-arid rangeland that can only support animal agriculture. In the past, when people have attempted to convert parts of the Sahel – a massive east-to-west strip of Africa located south of the Sahara and north of the equator – from livestock pasture to croplands, desertification and loss of productivity have ensued.

Without livestock, life in certain environments would likely become impossible for some people. That especially includes nomadic groups such as the Mongols and Berbers who, stripped of their livestock, would have to settle permanently in cities or towns – likely losing their cultural identity in the process.

Meat is also an important part of most of our history, tradition and cultural identity. Numerous groups around the world give livestock gifts at weddings, celebratory dinners such as Christmas centre around turkey or roast beef, and meat-based dishes are emblematic of certain regions and people. The cultural impact of completely giving up meat would be very big, which is why efforts to reduce meat consumption have often faltered.

 

All in moderation

But fortunately, the entire world doesn’t need to convert to vegetarianism or veganism to reap many of the benefits while limiting the repercussions.

Instead, moderation in meat eating frequency and portion size is key. One study found that simply conforming to the World Health Organization’s dietary recommendations would bring the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions down by 17% – a figure that would drop by an additional 40% should citizens further avoid animal products and processed snacks.

Certain changes to the food system would also encourage us all to make healthier and more environmentally-friendly dietary decisions.

Check out my next blog post in which I examine alternative protein sources.

Prof Andy Lowe is a British-Australian scientist and expert in plants and trees, particularly the management of genetic, biological and ecosystem resources. He has discovered lost forests, championed to eliminate illegally logged timber in global supply chains, served the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime and is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – Land Degradation and Restoration report. He has helped secure a quarter of a billion dollars worth of research funding in his field and is an experienced and respected executive leader, board member, as well as mid-career mentor. Andy has been the Scientist in Residence at The Australian Financial Review since August 2018. Andy is inaugural Director of Agrifood and Wine at the University of Adelaide serving as the external face for food industry and government sector partnerships across Australia, and the world.

7 comments on “Protein is the new black

  1. Great article – protein certainly is the new black and I look forward to reading your follow up article on protein alternatives. A point that seems to be getting somewhat lost in the focus on eating for the planet and for personal health is that ‘discretionary’ foods contribute almost as much to GHGe’s as red meat but with little nutritional value. Work by the CSIRO showed discretionary foods contributed 29.4% to GHGe’s in an average diet and fresh red meat 33.9%. Yet this is rarely mentioned – maybe it’s an old and worn out message (it’s certainly not ‘black’) – and the focus is primarily on reducing red meat intake as a way to better planetary and personal health (also noting that GHGe’s are not the only measure of environmental impact). We are now seeing an investor driven race to develop meat alternatives which in many cases are highly processed products and ultra-processed foods are a problem in themselves. We could be jumping from the fire into the frying pan if we end up with people thinking that eating a fake meat burger is all they need to do to help save the planet. It’s also worth noting that lowering energy intake helps address these problems- eating less is a good strategy. Which brings me to the real problem behind the problem – isn’t this all driven by our human tendency to over-production and over-consumption and the very difficult time we have living within the boundaries of moderation? Restraint is such a difficult thing 🙂

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    • Thanks Sharon yes great points
      Moving towards more processed products as meat alternatives would potentially be retrograde step
      Just for clarity can you identify key classes of discretionary foods and where main GHGs come from – presumably processing and transport rather than primary production?

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  2. Hi Andy I’ve checked the paper and the GHGe associated with different food products were estimated using environmentally extended input–output (EEIO) analysis. I’m no expert on this but the paper states that this method estimates the greenhouse gas emission factors include the total CO2 equivalents from all sources encompassing the entire life cycle (including the full life cycle impacts of all upstream inputs) from the point of production to the point of purchase. The main discretionary groups contributing are processed meat, burgers, tacos and pizza (number 1), followed by alcoholic beverages, then sugar sweetened beverages, savoury and sweet biscuits and cakes and then dairy based desserts, cream and butter.

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  3. Pingback: Alternative protein sources – Prof Andy Lowe

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