When it comes to reducing emissions, we tend to think about things like cars or electricity, but agriculture is actually one of the biggest contributors to global warming. Now, a study finds much of that impact could be lowered with the aid of novel food technologies rich in protein and other nutrients and far more eco-friendly than meat.
Our dietary choices are a major driver of environmental changes. We’ve known for some time that meat (and especially red meat) is an important driver of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, and yet, for many people, cutting down on meat is still a big challenge — or simply unacceptable to some.
But new options are just around the corner. From more and more realistic meat replacements to insects to outright lab-grown meat or dairy, a new generation of novel foods is coming. But will they actually be more eco-friendly?
A team of researchers wanted to investigate that.
“We were interested in investigating the potential of such novel/future foods to reduce impacts in whole diets in Europe,” said Rachel Mazac of the University of Helsinki, one of the study authors. “This is part of a suite of studies needed to understand how such foods can be more widely incorporated into diets in Europe. We looked only at the impacts and the nutritional constraints in greatly shifting diets for less environmental impact.”
The team drew on existing data to compare the greenhouse gas emissions associated with various food products. The data is from either recent literature on the food items or from working with the producers of the products directly, Mazac told ZME Science. So they compared products based on existing technology — although innovation may make novel food products even more sustainable, this wasn’t included in the study.
Overall, the study found that the emissions of the European diet could be slashed by 80% by replacing meat with these protein-rich novel foods. It’s not just emissions, either — there would also be important progress in terms of water and land use.
“The main message is that, if certain types of animal source foods are reduced and replaced by certain novel/future foods and plant-based alternatives, there is potential for significant reductions in environmental impacts. These significant reductions in water use, land use, and global warming potential do require large changes to current diets in Europe,” Mazac told ZME Science.
However, the team found that low-technology solutions are just as helpful. Basically, switching meat and dairy for more vegetarian options would also reduce the environmental impact of the European diet by 75%. In the US, where the general diet is typically even more meat-intensive (and subsequently, carbon-intensive), the difference would be even more significant.
It only works if consumers want it
But these improvements would only work if consumers actually opt for these products. Surveys and studies have yielded contradictory results, and presumably, there will be at least some reluctance to opt for novel types of foods — especially options like insects, for instance.
However, some novel foods are already on the market. For instance, mycoprotein (a type of low-fat, high-fiber protein derived from a species of fungus) is becoming increasingly popular among people looking to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption.
Ultimately, the study did not analyze consumer preference, and this is a complex issue that’s hard to predict at the moment. What the study showed is that the potential to cut emissions by replacing meat with novel foods exists.
“We assumed already that diets would have to change fairly significantly to incorporate these food items, seeing as many of them are novel or new for average European diets. There is certainly potential for large-scale production and consumption for most of these foods, some, such as mycoprotein, are currently available on the market and have been for some time. There may be other aspects, which we did not investigate, which could influence the number of consumers; things like price points, taste, acceptability/neophobia, and regulation are still some barriers for larger consumption,” Mazac explains.
However, the researchers stress against placing all responsibility on consumers. The entire food system needs to undergo major changes to ensure that our diets are sustainable. We need healthy policies to support sustainable action, Mazac concludes.
“Lastly, I would just say that it is important to remember that reducing the impact of food systems on the planet is not only the job of the individual, but also of the system which provides the food. Diet changes are important, but they will also need to be accompanied by shifts to better production, changes to subsidies and policies, and significantly less waste.”
The study was published in Nature Food.