Header photo credit: Dominik Kempf on Unsplash
This article was originally published on the foods-future website.
Meat is good, meat is bad, plant based this, vegetarian that.
Everywhere we look, we see studies being pushed and exaggerated, and consumers are sceptical. Let’s explore what’s behind the plant-based backlash.
Released by Netflix in 2019, The Game Changers is a fascinating documentary based on the premise that plant-based nutrition is not only sufficient but superior. Whilst this assertion is not universally agreed upon, we can safely say that eating whole plant foods is good for us.
The Game Changers critic (and self-described health detective) Chris Kessler went on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast to debunk many of the points made in the documentary. One of the documentary’s producers, James Wilks, then made an appearance alongside Kessler – and they argued for almost four hours. Obviously, there is a great deal to argue about, and given the echo chamber that is social media, these “discussions” often polarise and further divide those with different beliefs.
Many can agree that the plant-based Impossible Burger is delicious – and all over Hong Kong. But the Impossible and Beyond ranges are also highly processed. Ultra-processed foods are coming under fire, but it is not clearly understood what ingredients are to blame in recent studies that have shown reduced lifespan as a result of high consumption of these products. It is also not clear whether any of the problems of processed food apply to Impossible and Beyond (only time will tell).
In the end, whilst we cannot say with any degree of certainly that eating meat is bad for our health, we do know that eating processed foods – whether plant based or not – probably is.
Impossible CEO Pat Brown wants to eliminate animals from the food production cycle by 2035, which sounds like a war on meat eaters. Recently, Impossible won a United Nations Global Climate Action Award.
It is true that beef has a greater environmental impact than nearly all other foods (all except buffalo, in fact), but this does not conside the larger, interconnected picture. Cows are often fed the surplus of other industries that would otherwise be wasted. There are lands used for grazing that are not suitable for growing crops. And beef is a very efficient source of nutrition that can be difficult to replace with a comparable amount of plant-based foods, especially in environments that do not support perennial crops.
When we use the environment as a reason to stop eating beef and then realise there is a much greater problem that should be addressed, we feel less inclined to change our eating habits for environmental reasons. This other problem will not go away when we change our eating habits.
Let’s talk about what’s going on in the climate-change debate at the moment and see how this ties into the plant-based backlash. The good news is that the world’s GHG (greenhouse gas) sources and sinks are in perfect harmony and the CO2 that humans produce is a tiny percentage of all CO2 emissions. The land, oceans and atmosphere have been exchanging massive quantities of CO2 long before us.
However, human emissions are not without effect. What we take out from one place goes somewhere else. Unfortunately, most of the surplus GHGs we produce are currently being sunk into our atmosphere because our oceans and land sinks are unable to absorb them all.
Human CO2 emissions (source: Global Carbon Budget 2013)
What is most striking about this human C02 emissions infographic above is the dramatic increase in fossil fuels. Fossil fuels – coal, crude oil and natural gas – are resources that Earth has been building for millions of years, and we are ramping up our use of these limited resources to the detriment of our atmosphere, effectively removing the sinks and making them into sources.
Land-use change is defined as GHG emissions from human activities that change the way land in which is used (e.g., clearing of forests for agricultural use). Land-use change is responsible for 18 per cent of global GHG emissions, principally from deforestation. Deforestation is the destruction of forests that have been around for hundreds of years and that are not easily replaceable.
Land-use change and beef
The recent Amazon fires put the spotlight on Brazil and the export of their beef (which goes primarily to Hong Kong and China). It is believed that the fires are deliberately lit in order to clear land for livestock and crops. The cows themselves are not the creators of land-use change GHG emissions; instead, it’s the method in which the land is acquired to raise them.
This is one way consumers can make a difference, by choosing what beef they purchase at the supermarket. Cheap beef may be cheap for a reason – eat less, but eat better.
There is a significant variation on the impact of cows on the environment depending on how they are raised, and we can certainly encourage more efficiency in this area. This is especially the case for beef suppliers in developing countries who are producing increasing numbers of cattle, with more emissions per head.
Life cycle analysis (LCA) of beef takes into account all inputs to raise cows – fertiliser, crops and even burps – but does not consider carbon sequestration into the land. As White Oak Pastures in the USA has demonstrated with its recent study on regenerative farming, this can be significant and nearly offsets all emissions. This is good news for beef lovers – as consumers, we should eat less but eat better and know our sources.
Impossible says that animals are extremely inefficient at converting feed into a product we can eat, and they can do it better. They quote a report that says, “1,187 Pcal of feed are converted into 83 Pcal” of beef, which is an efficiency rate of seven per cent. This does seem very inefficient, and it would be interesting to know how Impossible does with this.
Consider though that plant-based alternatives such as Impossible tend to need industrial-scale farming, with mega farms dedicated to growing just one ingredient over and over. This mono-crop culture discourages crop rotation and disadvantages smaller-scale, traditional farmers who are seen to be more in touch with the land.
So why go plant based?
There is a great deal of research to support the idea that cutting back on meat and eating more vegetarian and vegan meals is good for our health.
Take vegan brunch at Olive Leaf on Lamma – it’s incredibly delicious and healthy, with no plant-based meat in sight. Freshly prepared plant-based dishes of such flavour and variety means no one feels they are missing out by not eating meat but, instead, they are stocking up on nutrients.
Whilst it may not be the whole answer to our climate-change woes, plant-based eating will make a difference if enough people make sustainable choices.
Look for seasonal and local produce and inventive ways to cook. Legumes are very environmentally friendly. Experiment with lentils, beans and tofu. Make your own veggie burger, adding whatever sauces and flavours you like.
If you are buying seafood, try to find out where it comes from. Choose Right Today has resources to help.
The more we ask these questions, the more companies will realise how important sustainability is to us as consumers.
Ethical reasons remain the unassailable logic to not eating meat. In order to feed our ever-growing population, food needs to be grown efficiently, and this rarely equates to improving conditions for animals.
Where possible, research where your meat comes from and the conditions in which it was raised. This is much easier to do with online speciality suppliers such as Eat the Kiwi and meatmarket.hk, where you can directly ask them the right questions, rather than at Hong Kong supermarkets.
Be aware though that trade-offs are inevitable. If you want jet-fresh, grass-fed beef from New Zealand, you are contributing to that fossil fuel tally.
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