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 Paradox of the Roasted Vegetable Sandwich – Do We Eat What We Preach?

Large Veggie BurgerSo here’s the question: who has been out to eat with friends, family or work colleagues, ordered what’s perceived as a virtuous (low-fat, high-fibre, gluten-free or vegetarian) meal in a restaurant, and then grabbed a Snickers bar on the way home? Or, when completing a survey, stated that you are highly concerned about animal welfare or environmental issues, then gone to the grocery store and chosen food simply based on price, taste and convenience?

I’d suggest that this is a situation common to most of us – the behaviours and image that we present to the world (including our carefully-posed selfies) do not always reveal our real personality. Which brings me to the paradox of the roasted vegetable sandwich.

Yesterday, a friend complained that as a consequence of being last in the lunch line at a conference, all that was left was a “soggy veggie sandwich.” Now I attend a lot of meetings and conferences, many of which serve sandwiches, and despite being a voracious meat eater, I’ll almost always choose the vegetarian sandwich. I love egg, hummus or roasted vegetables and really hate slimy catering mayonnaise tainting the deliciousness of roast beef or ham. Luckily for me, in my experience any sandwiches left after the initial rush are inevitably vegetarian or vegan.

Obviously my view may be biased in that I attend far more meetings with a farmer or agricultural industry audience than those attended by, say, Hollywood actors or animal rights activists. But given the number of untouched meatless sandwiches, are caterers overcatering for vegetarians and vegans in an attempt to be sensitive to diverse dietary requirements; or do survey results indicating that people intend to cut meat consumption vastly overestimate the extent to which this is actually happening? Do many people who claim to be vegetarian or vegan actually eat mostly plant-based foods (Hello Beyoncé!) with the occasional hamburger?

We are inundated with messages suggesting that meat is a socially-irresponsible choice. That Meatless Mondays are wildly popular and an increasing number of people are turning to vegetarian and vegan diets to improve their health, animal welfare or environmental impact. Indeed, one UK study of the sandwiches available in grocery stores and fast food restaurants showed that less than 3% were plant-based, and suggested that this was a significant problem for the (alleged) 35% of people who are willing to cut their meat consumption. Yet if over a third of the population were really determined to cut meat intake, wouldn’t that demand have filtered back to sandwich retailers?

Despite stated consumer interest in buying earth-friendly or high-welfare products, interest seldom translates into real-life buying behaviours. Those opposed to livestock farming often state that we could feed the world (political, social and infrastructural barriers not withstanding) if we all adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet, but it seems that we simply don’t want to.

CIWF TweetCould we give up growing crops for animal feed and feed more people with tofu and Quorn? Absolutely. Yet there’s a huge gap between philosophical ideology and real world behaviour. Rather than bewailing the allegation that one-third of global grain crops are fed to livestock (ignoring the fact that a high proportion consists of human-inedible byproducts from cereal crops grown for human use), perhaps it’s time to celebrate the fact that two-thirds of global cereals are used to feed people, without being made to feel guilty for enjoying a roast beef sandwich (no mayo please).

Vegetarians May Preach – But We’re Not All Members of the Choir

Less meatThe  suggestion that we should eat less meat in order to save the planet pops up with monotonous regularity in my twitter feed. Interestingly, those who make this claim are almost always vegetarian, vegan or profess to eat very little meat. This is rather like me asserting that we could mitigate climate change and save resources by eating fewer bananas and curbing our windsurfing habits. I loathe bananas, and if you ever see me windsurfing you’d better be sure that there’s a nearby hospital bed and neck brace with my name on it. As you can imagine, giving up either activity would have little impact on my life.

This is why I find it interesting and rather facile that those who do not eat meat proclaim fleshy abstinence as the way forwards. It’s easy to preach a solution that has no impact on your life – far harder to make a dietary or lifestyle change that actually impacts you.

The “eat less meat” movement would have far more credibility if it was promoted by a hunting, fishing, grilling, hamburger-lover who publicly declared his/her love for meat in all it’s many forms, and bemoaned the fact that they felt they should forgo the steak in favor of the tofu stir-fry. Yet this doesn’t happen. Why? Because the vast majority of us simply don’t feel that an intangible threat (we can’t see or feel climate change, or conceptualize the quantity of oil reserves remaining) is sufficient to make us give up our carnitas burrito. In reality, meat eating is only likely to decline if it becomes too expensive or subject to regulatory sanctions (e.g. rationing similar to that in Britain during WWII). The influx of papers suggesting that we should reduce consumption therefore fall on deaf ears.

So let’s face the facts. Neither the national or global population is likely to reduce meat consumption in the near future, and the rising income per capita in India and China will increase demand for meat still further. Instead of making recommendations based on notional utopias, let’s focus on areas where we can really improve.

Amazing gains in productivity have allowed the beef, dairy, pork and egg industry to considerably reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions over the last century. With a culture of continuous improvement and access to technologies that improve productivity, we can feed the future population using even fewer resources.

Let’s make better use of the multifarious by-products from the human food and fiber industry. Ruminants are blessed with the ability to digest fibers and plant materials that we either can’t or won’t eat – using by-product feeds to replace corn and soy refutes the claim that livestock compete with humans for food.

Finally, take a look at your own plate. Globally, 33% of food is wasted. Just think of the reductions in resource use we could achieve (and people we could feed) if all the crops planted, fruit picked, and milk, meat and eggs produced were consumed, rather than just 2/3 of them.

We evoke change by leading by example – I’m off to enjoy a steak, conventionally-raised using 12% less water, 19% less feed and 33% less land than its equivalent in 1977. You’d better believe that if there’s any left, it’s going in a sandwich tomorrow. As my Grandma used to say: Waste not, want not.