Opinion: An alternative eating future risks more environmental damage than traditional animal-based proteins. The Snark Syndrome strikes again, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth writes.
Future thinkers, activists and some researchers are promoting the idea that traditional animal-based proteins (meat and milk) are an environmental liability and must be replaced with the new alternative proteins to save the planet.
This is another success of the Snark Syndrome – "if I tell you three times it's true".
Certainly, animals (including humans) have an environmental impact. And certainly, some humans eat more animal protein than needed to meet their Essential Amino Acid requirements.
But to translate that into an alternative eating future risks more environmental damage as well as deterioration in human health, both directly (through inadequate nutrition) and indirectly through environmental impacts.
Increasingly research is showing that claims made by "better for the environment" alternative proteins are based on selective calculations.
Non-profit investor network Ceres examined 50 North American food companies this year and found that the majority did not disclose emissions from crops and livestock used in their products.
Beyond Meat, which describes its products as "plant-based, vegan meat that's tasty and better for you and our planet", discloses nothing.
Nor does Impossible Foods, which claims that eating the Impossible Burger will reduce your environmental footprint through reduced water (87 per cent), land (96 per cent) and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (89 per cent) in comparison with a bovine burger.
The companies appear to be focused on the environmental impacts directly associated with their operations, without including the supply chain impacts and consumer waste.
Ceres' 2019 report "Measure the Chain: Tools for Assessing GHG Emissions in Agricultural Supply Chains" estimated that over 80 per cent of the emissions generated by food systems stem directly from agricultural production and its associated land-use change.
Most food and agricultural companies, consider these emissions to be "scope 3".
They are upstream or downstream emissions not under the direct control of the company (i.e. indirect emissions) and so are "left out".
Global ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) company Sustainalytics is on the same wavelength.
It suggests that plant-based products appear to solve the methane problem from ruminants but create other problems.
Most contain soy, for instance, which in North America is linked to deforestation.
In addition, all plant-based "alternative proteins" require land upon which to grow the component crops, and crops require agrichemicals – fertilisers and compounds to suppress weeds, pests and diseases.
They also require fossil fuel to drive tractors, harvesters and basic processing.
The research is equally damning for cultured meat.
Memphis Meats (upsidefoods.com) is making meat in a new way.
"One that satisfies our cravings, our conscience, and our heart."
It's still at the pilot stage but claims (through investor Richard Branson) that cultured meat will use much less water, land and produce up to 90 per cent fewer GHG than conventionally produced meat.
Again, there are no actual data.
The energy costs of maintaining a controlled environment are considerable, the embodied energy costs in creating large vats for fermentation are significant, and the energy for the fermentation has to be provided by something – sugar is the cheapest option, and sugar, whether from maize, cane or beet, is a crop, requiring the agrichemicals and fossil fuel already mentioned.
The impact of all the overlooked factors could last very much longer in the atmosphere than the methane from ruminants, the effect of which has gone in a few decades.
Research by University of Oxford physicists, published in 2019 in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems reported that "under continuous high global
consumption, cultured meat results in less warming than cattle initially, but this gap narrows in the long term and in some cases, cattle production causes far less warming, as methane emissions do not accumulate, unlike carbon dioxide."
The authors identified a need for detailed and transparent life cycle analysis (LCA) of real cultured meat production systems.
They concluded that cultured meat is not necessarily climatically superior to cattle; its relative impact instead depends on the availability of decarbonised energy generation and the specific production systems that are developed.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
Milk and all the alternatives are yet another story.
Milk contains nutrients, most of the alternatives contain additives to boost their nutrient content and stabilisers to prevent the additives from settling out.
Perfect Day (originally Muufri in 2014) has given up on creating milk through vat fermentation and is now trying to perfect "dairy" ingredients.
Doing better than nature is proving challenging.
To do better than nature for human nutrition is even more difficult.
Vegans require supplements to stay healthy – and those supplements are not included in the environmental impact of diet calculations.
Nor are the impacts of the vegans themselves in terms of the bodily waste products.
Animal-derived foods meet essential amino acid needs up to 240 per cent more effectively than plant-derived foods.
This means that vegans excrete far more excess N (possibly as much as 140 per cent) than carnivores, all of which is at some point oxidised to nitrous oxides, a GHG, in the atmosphere.
Full life cycle assessments are required for the future. Everything else is marketing, or greenwashing – or, of course, brainwashing.
The Snark Syndrome strikes again.
- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected Director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org