What is a “Sustainable Diet” in the UK? – Part 3/3: A World Without Meat
Updated: Jul 21
By A. Clare
Sustainable food systems form a core part of the European Green Deal, which aims to tackle the climate and environmental challenges currently faced by our planet. As discussed in part 1 and part 2, many studies promoting plant-based diets focus on the within ‘farm gate’ impacts on climate change but do not consider the alternative environmental impacts throughout the entire supply chain. Sustainable diets are defined as “nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy, culturally acceptable, financially affordable and with low environmental impacts” (Burlingame & Dernini, 2012; Perignon et al., 2015). The Farm to Fork strategy aims to provide benefits to the health and quality of EU consumer’s lives (European Commission, 2020); however, the social and economic impacts of specific dietary choices are rarely regarded in many dietary sustainability studies.
The European Commission (2020) has stated the need for food that is “safe, plentiful, nutritious and high-quality”. Integrating sustainability with diets of high nutritional quality is important (Clonan & Holdsworth, 2012); however, nutritional challenges vary between countries and between populations (Rideoutt & Huang, 2019). Furthermore, it cannot be assumed that a healthy diet will always have a lower environmental impact (Macdiarmid, 2012) or that a low impact diet will be healthy.
Livestock has for long been recognised as an important vector for the production of valuable nutrients. Meat is much more nutrient-dense than alternatives. For example, for every kg of input received (or 0.6 kg of protein), cattle produce 1.09 kg of edible protein (FAO, 2019; NFU, 2020), which is twice as much as the equivalent in beans (Mbow et al., 2019) and 2-5 times as much as high-protein meat substitutes (Bohrer, 2017). Furthermore, livestock products also provide many essential micronutrients, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, calcium and zinc (FAO, 2019; Fehér et al., 2020), which must often be supplemented on plant-based diets (NHS.uk). The difficulty in obtaining vitamin B12 from a plant-based diet arises because it is usually introduced into the body with soluble animal-based foods (e.g., liver, meat, dairy and eggs) (Dwyer, 1988; Fehér et al., 2020).
Affordability and Accessibility:
The high cost of certified sustainable foods is a well-recognised barrier to sustainable diet accessibility (Andrieu et al., 2006; Clonan & Holdsworth, 2012; Darmon & Drewnowski, 2015; Dowler et al., 2007; Perignon et al., 2015). Although the reasons behind dietary choice are in no doubt complex, diet-related health outcomes often vary based on social factors such as income and education (Barosh et al., 2014). The affordability of food remains fundamental because foods that are energy-dense but nutrient-poor (such as those that are highly processed, high in sugar or have added fats) continue to be cheaper than healthier alternatives (Barosh et al., 2014; Ridoutt & Huang, 2019).
Springmann et al. (2016) suggested that; by reducing meat consumption, the increasing global population will have safe and affordable access to food. However, millions of people rely on the meat industry across the globe either directly (i.e., through farming) or indirectly (i.e., through by-products) for food security and income. As dietary preferences change, the demand for different foods also fluctuates, which directly impacts people and communities. For example, quinoa is a highly nutritious protein alternative consumed by many meat-free eaters across the globe. Between 2013-2014, the global demand for quinoa rapidly increased, resulting in a 60% increase in production (Suárez‐Estrella et al., 2018). Farmers in South America have since recognised the high value of this crop and, between 2007-2013, the high value of quinoa exports led to extreme food poverty in many highland areas of Peru that relied on this protein source (McDonell, 2016).
Our growing population is requiring more resources and the urge for sustainable food systems is clear. However, achieving an environmentally sustainable diet is complex because climate change itself is also greatly impacting food security, with major impacts on the price and availability of many food products. Crops and livestock are affected by fluctuations in water and temperature, seasonal variations and other climatic extremes (Yadav et al., 2019). Precipitation can increase crop yields until a point, however after this excessive rainfall becomes harmful (Lobell et al., 2011). Crops that are grown in areas experiencing climatic related changes in rain input (e.g., extreme droughts or flooding) are decreasing in availability, thereby negatively affecting accessibility in many global regions (Barosh et al., 2014; Goulding et al., 2020).
The spatial variation in climatic impacts means that food production will differ between regions and crop types. For example, in high latitudes, warmer temperatures are likely to increase the growing period of some crops, which may enable yields to be improved (Parry et al., 2004; Yadav et al., 2018). However, crop productivity depends on many factors (e.g., rainfall, pesticides, soil pH, land type) and, therefore, it cannot be assumed that food systems in higher latitude areas will benefit. Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that the effects of climate variation on crop production are more often negative than positive, with developing countries facing high vulnerability (IPCC, 2013). On average, an increase in temperature by 1°C lowers food production yields by up to 10% (Lobell et al., 2011) and this will continue to decrease as atmospheric temperatures exceed the critical crop physiological thresholds (Yadav et al., 2018). Rapid temperature changes are exerting a strong selection pressure on many plant populations and, genetic adaptations are therefore critical for plant cultivation to continue under a changing climate. Human history has shown that arid regions depend more on animal-based diets than on plant-based diets – due to plant cultivation difficulties.
Meat Industry By-products:
The livestock sector works with other industries to utilise meat industry by-products (Figure 1), thereby preventing these materials from entering landfill, which could further contribute to the GHG effect. Many animal-derived hormones and drugs are used in the pharmaceutical industry, whereas fats and greases are used by the cosmetic industry, food industry and transport sectors (Irshad & Sharma, 2015). If these by-products were not utilised, not only would they enter landfill and emit GHGs, but alternative products would also have to be produced (increasing emissions).
Figure 1 - By-products from the meat industry.
The production of alternative products may also be environmentally damaging. For example, although not always sustainable, palm oil is often used to substitute tallow – a fat derived from cattle with wide industrial application. Leather is a major by-product of the meat industry and, as dietary patterns change, the number of hides/skins available fluctuates. Leather has many uses, such as for shoes (approximately 47% of leather production), automotive interiors (17%), clothing (10%), furniture (10%), accessories (12%) and gloves (4%) (Leather UK – 2015 data). A reduction in global meat demand will decrease the availability of hides/skins and, therefore, alternative materials will have to be adopted for these applications.
Leather is often substituted by materials such as polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which have shorter lifespans and are well-known contributors to global plastic pollution. The widespread use and disposal of short-lived synthetic plastic materials have become a global environmental concern and, any decrease in leather production following a reduction in hide/skin availability will only add to this environmental impact.
As discussed in part 1 and part 2, protecting the environment forms a large part of sustainability; however, social and economic aspects are just as important. Many sustainable diet recommendations are imbalanced because they are largely based on agricultural commodity production. Evaluating the sustainability of a diet extends beyond the food production stage; dietary guidelines should also consider the social and economic dimensions involved at the consumption end of the food chain.
The effect our food systems are having on climate change is evident, however, the complexity of global food security is challenging because this relationship is mutually dependent. Achieving sustainable food security in conjunction with our growing population and a changing climate is a global challenge. There is an urgent requirement for easily accessible and affordable food sources; however, it is implausible to expect that this can be achieved through a global homogenisation in dietary choices. Plant-based diets are not always achievable (e.g., due to climate limitations or resource availability) and, many people rely on the livestock sector for their income. The Farm to Fork strategy aims to benefit consumers quality of life, thereby demonstrating the importance of considering social and economic factors when making dietary choices.
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