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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The Future’s Bright; The Future’s…Meaty? A Response to Breakthrough’s Essay on Meat Production

jims-charolais-in-feedyardThis week I was asked to respond to an excellent Breakthrough article on the environmental impacts of beef production. As ever, I hope the comments below provide food for thought (pardon the pun) and I urge you to read the full Breakthrough article as well as the other comments by Jayson Lusk, Maureen Ogle and Alison van Eenennaam.

Every food has an environmental impact, whether it’s cheeseburgers or tofu, coffee or corn.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us and, as a scientist, sustainability consultant and parent, I don’t have a problem with food production being one of the biggest contributors to global environmental impacts. Why? Because food production is one of the few industries that are absolutely essential for human life. However, it’s clear that we need to take steps to reduce environmental impacts from human activity, and as such, the livestock industry is often criticised for both resource use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Although meat production is predicted to increase from now until at least 2050, it should be noted that the trends for improved productivity and efficiency within global livestock industries also reduce environmental impacts. As described in Marian Swain’s essay on meat production, the US beef industry cut resource use and greenhouse emissions considerably between 1977 and 2007. Meanwhile, the rise of modern feedlot-finishing systems cuts land use, water use, and emissions per unit of beef compared to grass-finished meat.

These findings may seem intuitively incorrect as we’re constantly exposed to marketing and media messages suggesting that only grass-fed meats are environmentally sustainable, and that intensive livestock systems are undesirable. The data speak for themselves however—the majority of extensive systems finish cattle at lighter weights (thus requiring more total animals to maintain beef supply), have lower growth rates (so cattle take longer to grow to their finish weight) and often have lower reproductive performance in female cattle.

All these factors combine to increase environmental impacts. But when I presented this data to a group of French Masters-level Livestock Engineering students earlier this month, they were (in their own words) shocked. Even among experts and students, there remains a great deal of misunderstandings when it comes to meat production.

Does this mean that every beef producer worldwide should embrace feedlot-finishing and reduce pasture use? Absolutely not. One of the major benefits of cattle compared to swine and poultry is that they digest and use human-inedible forages, such that dairy and grass-fed beef cattle actually produce more human-edible protein in the form of milk and meat than they consume; and feedlot-finished beef cattle have a ratio of human-edible feed intake to human-edible protein output similar to that of swine, despite their greater overall land use. In keeping with the themes discussed in the Swain’s essay, there is no magic bullet—it is essential to fit production systems to the cattle, climate, market, and culture within each region and to improve productivity within each and every system.

So rather than reducing animal protein consumption as we move towards 2050, we might ponder keeping total consumption relatively stable, with a more equitable distribution across the globe? This would allow for a decrease in over-consumption in high-income regions, while providing a greater quantity of milk, meat, and eggs to those who have dire need for adequate animal proteins to maintain health and to promote adequate child growth and development. While the environmental impact of beef production is a key concern, we also have to examine the role of livestock in economic and social sustainability.  For billions of small-scale farmers, cattle provideeconomic viability, improved nutrition, social status and a means to diversify agricultural production as well as tangible benefits in terms of fertilizer, hides and other by-products.

Should we insist that global beef production is abandoned in favour of increased legumes, nuts or lab-created proteins? No. We simply need to give producers worldwide the education, tools and technologies to make the best and most efficient use of their resources. Only then will we have a truly sustainable (environmentally responsible, economically viable and socially acceptable) global meat industry.