Opinion: Encouraging people to eat more animal organs for Organuary may seem like a light-hearted response to the vegan movement, but research shows it could reduce greenhouse gases, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth investigates.
Eating the heart of your enemy might seem a bit extreme these days but in the past it was an acceptable part of a surprising number of cultures – surprising until one considers food scarcity, that is.
Eating whatever was available was a matter of expediency and the lore that arose around what each part of the body signified shows an early awareness of basic function.
Eating the brain and tongue gave knowledge and bravery; the heart gave courage and power.
We now know that these organs, and others such as liver and kidneys, are nutrient-dense – they contain many nutrients per calorie and per kilogram, including B-vitamins, folate, iron, magnesium, selenium, zinc and some of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
In the 1970s people in Britain ate approximately 50g of organ meat a week.
A serving of meat is 100g (raw) suggesting an average consumption of one serving a fortnight. School lunches included liver and kidneys.
The amount consumed in the UK has reduced to less than 5g this century, rather implying that most people no longer consume any at all.
But German research published in 2019 has shown that eating organ meats twice a week could reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) from livestock by 12.5 per cent, by reducing waste and hence both landfill and the need for more animals to feed people.
This reduction has been calculated to be equivalent to taking 214 million cars off the road for good.
The data come from the Organuary.com website – the carnivore retaliation to Veganuary.
Organuary has been launched in the Northern Hemisphere by people who are probably omnivores (like most people) and who are concerned about the vegan movement urging other people to remove animal products from their lives.
Although the approach seems light-hearted, there is a serious side.
When humans were hunter-gatherers, organ meats were highly prized because of how satisfying they were. We now know that satisfaction, beyond the mythology of bravery and other desirable attributes, is associated with nutrient density.
The fact that consumption of organs could assist the environment and that they are relatively cheap to buy should make them worthy of consideration in the diet.
The CSIRO (government funded research organisation in Australia) has investigated the best diet to meet nutritional needs for least environmental impact.
Their research involving not only GHG but also water and land, showed that eating to meet your needs and reducing "junk" foods would have the largest impact on reducing dietary environmental footprint.
The discretionary or "junk" foods, which include alcohol, confectionery, fried foods and processed meat are high in kilojoules/calories, but low or completely lacking in essential nutrients. They are the opposite of nutrient-dense.
Emissions from these foods are avoidable because they are not a necessary part of a balanced diet. However, simply cutting them out would leave many diets energy deficient.
The researchers found that in comparison with the average diet, people should be eating slightly more red meat (servings increased from 70g to 80g a day, where 100g is a full serving), 40 per cent more servings of dairy products (or alternatives if fortified to meet the same nutritional content as milk, but fortification increases environmental impact) and more than doubling their consumption of vegetables to 5.5 servings.
Balancing the increase was a reduction in servings of fast food/discretionary items from 7.8 servings a day to 2.5 (or lower, of course).
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The "meeting the nutrient requirement for least impact" slightly increased greenhouse gases and land area/water use, but the CSIRO researchers showed with best practice (precision agriculture) 22 per cent savings could be achieved.
At the same time, researchers urged "knowing your serving size and sticking to it" stating that "the super-sizing phenomena has considerably impacted the environmental footprint and doesn't do any good for your body, or the environment".
Overeating is a form of food waste. Another is not planning meals and using a shopping list when buying food.
Household food waste in New Zealand has been estimated to be approximately a billion dollars a year. Bread tops the list (and doesn't include what is given to birds) and almost a third of what is scrapped is vegetables (peelings, cores and "past their best").
Food wastage relates to environmental impact because of the amount of energy and resources that are needed to make that piece of food.
Once in landfill, food waste decomposes producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas which, although short-lived, breaks down to products with ongoing impact.
The CSIRO researchers acknowledged that greenhouse gas emissions, a reduction in which is the focus of Veganuary, are important to consider, but point out that efforts to reduce one environmental impact can very often make others worse.
Reducing intake of discretionary foods and increasing core foods such as meat and dairy fits all requirements.
For concerns about expense – Organuary has given the data and the recipes; they mostly take fewer ingredients and less time than recipes based on, for instance, dried beans.
Making animal organs part of the increased red meat consumption is a part of the picture, for at least some people, as we create a sustainable future.
• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org