How sustainable is vegan food?

25 October 2021, 09:39 AM
  • Speciality Food takes a look at the real environmental impacts of meat versus plant-based food
How sustainable is vegan food?

A recent study has shed light on the effect that animal-based food production has on the planet. Meat and dairy account for over half (57%) of food-based greenhouse gas emissions, while 29% come from plant-based foods, according to the global study led by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor Atul Jain.

While health is still the key motivating factor for flexitarians, the protection of animal welfare and sustainability are both on the rise, according to Jordi Barri of plant-based brand Flax & Kale. Sustainability is at the top of the business’s agenda. “We truly believe that companies like ours have the mission to produce food which is sustainable, and which can help change peoples’ diets and the overall food system. The system we currently have is depleting the planet of its natural resources and, unfortunately, the food industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. We need to reverse this,” Jordi said.

Andy Shovel, co-founder of alternative-meat brand THIS, agreed. “The key thing to highlight is we’re trying to give consumers a more sustainable alternative to intensively farmed meat. Our THIS Isn’t Chicken, for example, requires 87% less water than real chicken and produces only 1.2kg of CO2 per kilogram, compared to 7kg required by real chicken,” he said. “This is essential in changing our global food system.”

Producing more sustainable meat

According to resent research, Brits are already eating much less meat than they did only 10 years ago. The study, which was published in the Lancet Planetary Health, revealed that daily meat consumption in the UK has dropped by 17% in the last decade. While most people are eating less red and processed meat compared to the last decade, they are eating more white meat.

However, the study pointed out that what livestock are fed and where and how the meat is produced has a large effect on meat’s overall environmental impact. “Locally produced meat has a much lower impact than meat that has been imported,” said lead researcher Cristina Stewart from the University of Oxford.

Veg in the spotlight

While locally produced meat and alternative meats both provide more sustainable routes, Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of plant-based restaurant Stem & Glory, said swapping in more vegetables will be key as more consumers look to reduce their meat consumption. “There is so much that is broken in the global food chain, so getting back to a meaningful relationship with the land around us is urgently needed,” Louise said. 

Plant-based food and drink is often better for the environment and consumers’ diets, but here too considering where and how these products are produced is important. For instance, air-transported fruit and vegetables can create more greenhouse gas emissions than some meat. 

“Vegan food can play a big part in this, but plant-based processed food isn’t the answer either. Natural wholefoods grown in the climate where we live is the right direction for us all to move in as the predominant food culture. If we wish to live the lives we are used to in terms of leisure and eating out, then we must decarbonise this now,” she said.

Environmental labelling

Communicating the benefits of eating vegan food or local meat will be an important way to boost stainability efforts, experts say. “I believe our sector has the need and the duty to become much better communicators,” Jordi said. “We have explained that a plant-based diet is more sustainable, but we perhaps need to be blunter about the opportunity cost and even damage we cause when consuming livestock and livestock-based ingredients. People should know that a making a chicken burger will deplete the planet of almost six bathtubs worth of water. Our sector should be using clearer, more direct language with messages ordinary people can relate to.

“We need to move beyond our comfort zone and not just talk to our vegan/vegetarian/flexitarian supporters, but to the wider population,” he said.

Environmental impact labels on food and drink products could also help. Cristina Stewart’s research looked into the effect of labelling and designed experimental labels that scored food and drink products based on their greenhouse gas emission, biodiversity loss, water use and water pollution. “When you don’t have the information about environmental impact of food, it’s really hard to shop with that in mind,” she said.

With the National Food Strategy targeting a goal of reducing meat consumption by 30% over the next 10 years, it will only become more important for consumers to understand the sustainable credentials of the food and drink they buy – and retailers, as well as food and drink producers, have a key role to play.

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