Low Meat, Faux Meat or No Meat – Should Retailers Really Reward Us for Buying Vegetarian Foods?

All food have an environmental impact

There’s no doubt that eating more fruit and vegetables is a positive idea. Nationally we still don’t hit our 5-per-day and lifestyle diseases are major causes of premature death. However, as Sainsbury’s redesigns aisles to try and convince shoppers to swap meat for vegetables and plans to issue extra loyalty points to customers choosing vegetarian foods, are we in danger of applying myopic solutions to a seriously complex issue?

Most people in developed countries eat more than the recommended 70 g of meat per day. If (and this is debatable) the researchers who claim that meat consumption is linked to lifestyle disease are correct, then reducing the amount that we eat may be a positive step. However, much of the justification for cutting meat consumption appears to be on the basis of reducing environmental impacts.

So how do we ensure that we eat a diet with a low carbon footprint? It’s very simple. Drewnowski et al. (2015) showed that grains, syrups and sugars had the lowest carbon emissions per kg of food – considerably lower than meat and dairy products. So we simply reduce the proportion of meat and increase the quantity of sugar that we eat each day. Just replace meat products with Mars bars and golden syrup and we’ll save the planet, albeit in conjunction with a spike in type II diabetes and a significant protein deficit.

If Sainsbury’s is determined to reward consumers for making healthier choices, why not do so based on the proportion of fruit, vegetables, lean protein and dairy purchased vs. cakes, biscuits and crisps; rather than giving extra loyalty points for vegetarian products? After all, a snickers bar or a packet of oven chips are both vegetarian, but meat-free foods are not inherently healthy choices. Furthermore, where do fish and dairy fit into the new regime? Given the low nutritional value of soy and oat juices per unit of greenhouse gas emissions compared to dairy, the potential for child malnourishment is considerable if plant-based foods are mis-sold as being nutritionally-equivalent to animal products.

Bipolar “A is bad, B is good” panaceas do nothing to improve consumer knowledge of food production or environmental impacts. Strawberries may have a lower carbon footprint than beef, but cannot be grown on a rocky slope in Scotland. Pork may have a relatively high water footprint, but almonds use even more. Lettuce is a great source of fibre, but provides very little additional nutrients per kg compared to meat. In my experience as an ex-vegan, the majority of vegan restaurant dishes are largely reliant on pasta or rice to bulk out the vegetables. Is this really a healthier choice than lean meat and vegetables? Given that many young people have little or no interest in cooking, is the presence of spiralised courgettes or cauliflower rice at the end of the aisle going to engender a sudden interest in all things gastronomic?

Most people’s diets are led (to a greater or lesser extent) by the foods available in the local supermarket, therefore retailers have huge opportunities to educate, encourage and improve our food choices. It’s not clear why Sainsbury’s would choose to launch this initiative, but it appears to be a box-ticking exercise, designed to address a single minor issue while ignoring the bigger problem.

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Big, Small, Local, Artisan… Why We Need to Kick the Food and Farming Label Habit

coffe-water-and-brownieLet’s think about marketing labels. The coffee I’m currently drinking is a new premium blend with fruity notes and hints of lemongrass, the tasting notes so extensive that I was tempted to swill it around and pretend it was a glass of vintage Malbec before the first sip (except I knew I’d end up with a caffeinated tsunami flooding my Mac). The walls of this coffee shop are plastered with buzzwords including “delicious”, “lovers” and  “changing lives”. Everything is carefully stage-managed to make me feel that I’ve wisely invested my £2.50 on a cup of branded coffee. Is this coffee more caffeine-laden than the equivalent free-cup-with-a-loyalty-card from Waitrose? Can I detect the top notes of passion fruit? Does it use less water than freeze-dried instant coffee? Will I leap tall buildings with a single bound after drinking it? Absolutely not. Yet the marketing involved makes me feel good about my choice of coffee chain and beverage, without providing any factual information to facilitate my decision.

Like it or not, marketing labels are ubiquitous, exclusive and bipolar. Black and white. Yes or no. Good or bad. Even in the scientific world, where we’re renowned for caveats and “Under this specific set of conditions we saw a significant difference in X although that can’t always extrapolate to Y….” answers to questions, media coverage of scientific research is becoming binomial. Food X will kill you. Eat food Y and you won’t get cancer. Shades of grey have ceased to exist.

Back in September 2016, Jayson Lusk published an excellent piece in the NY Times explaining the importance of technology use on modern, large-scale farms. The only issue (for me) was the title: “Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment”. The supposition being, of course, that we have to dispel the myth that “industrial” farms are environmentally-undesirable. Yet using terms like “industrial” have deeper connotations – if a large farm is industrial, is a small farm artisan? If a dairy herd containing 100 cows is a “factory farm” (regardless of familial ownership or management), is the one that contains 99 cows a small, vibrant, local business? Is a farmer who is passionate about pasture management, reducing nutrient run-off and promoting biodiversity a saviour of the planet, regardless of whether he/she produces enough beef to feed one family or 5,000 families (approximately 1,700 cow herd) per year? There are as many farming systems worldwide as there are farmers – trying to apply broad categories (“big vs. small” “factory vs. humane” “grass-fed vs. grain-fed”) tells us absolutely nothing about the management practices, animal welfare, environmental sustainability and social responsibility of a particular farm.

Perhaps it’s time to take a evidence-based approach. The consumer absolutely has a right to choose products from agricultural systems that they prefer, yet this needs to be provided via factual, quantifiable information rather than marketing buzzwords. Being told that a piece of pork pie is “artisan” or that Supermarket X’s beef mince costs 20 p/kg less does not facilitate informed decision-making.

If we assume that all other factors (including price) relating to food purchase are equal:

  • Eggs from Farm X are ranked 9.5/10 on supporting the local community
  • Eggs from Farm Y have an animal welfare rating 10% higher than average
  • Eggs from Farm Z eggs have a carbon footprint 25% lower than average

I wonder how many consumers choosing eggs based on measurable performance outcomes would be supporting a different production system than the one that they perceive to be best? We (as an agricultural industry as well as in the role that we all play as consumers) need factual information on labels rather than marketing buzzwords.

We would also have a better understanding of the issues that really are important to the consumer. I was recently asked whether I was concerned about antibiotic use in livestock. The obvious answer was “Yes”… yet my main concern was the challenge of eliminating the use of medically-important antibiotics (while maintaining access to veterinary antibiotics that have no impact on human medicine), reducing antimicrobial resistance and improving the health and welfare of global livestock populations through alternative technologies and management practices. Not surprisingly, my answer didn’t fit with the assumed “I’m concerned because everybody knows that farmers massively overuse antibiotics as a panacea for poor management” rationale.

Recent data from a global charity suggests that almost 90% of Indian consumers are deeply concerned about cattle health and welfare on dairy farms. Great. Does this mean they’d pay more for milk to improve dairy cow welfare? That they were given factual information about dairy production? That they understand the relative environmental impacts, cattle health issues and social impacts of various dairy systems? All unlikely. We face a number of challenges within agriculture – notably the need to produce enough safe, affordable food to feed the growing population, whilst using fewer resources and with a lower environmental impact. We cannot and should not expect to make informed decisions on food choices based on marketing buzzwords – it’s time to stop differentiating on farm size or system and examine real farm impacts.