Sustainable Gastronomy Day: The meat of the matter

Food and Drink June 18, 2021

What is the environmental impact of meat versus meat substitutes? 

By Sarah Wynn, Managing Director, ADAS Climate and Sustainability

Today, 18 June, is Sustainable Gastronomy Day. But what is sustainable gastronomy and how can we make informed choices about the food we eat? 

Gastronomy is sometimes called the art of food. It can also refer to a style of cooking from a particular region. In other words, gastronomy often refers to local food and cuisine. Sustainability is the idea that something (e.g. agriculture, fishing or even preparation of food) is done in a way that is not wasteful of our natural resources and can be continued into the future without being detrimental to our environment or health. 

Sustainable gastronomy, therefore, means cuisine that takes into account where the ingredients are from, how the food is grown and how it gets to our markets and eventually to our plates.  

Sustainable Gastronomy Day 

In 2016, the UN General Assembly designated 18 June as Sustainable Gastronomy Day. The international campaign aims to educate the planet’s population about the role that sustainable gastronomy can play in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, by promoting agricultural development, food security, nutrition, sustainable food production and better food choices and in so doing, aiding in the conservation of biodiversity. 

A shift in our food focus 

A growing awareness and concern about where our food comes from has led to a rapid rise in interest in vegetarian and vegan diets. This has been driven in part by the younger generations shifting away from meat for health, ethical and environmental reasons. According to a report by research firm GlobalData, there has been a 600% increase in the US in people identifying as vegans in the last few years, rising from 1% in 2014 to 6% by 2017. In the UK, the number of people identifying as vegans has increased by 350% in the last decade according to this survey for the Vegan Society. This trend away from eating traditional forms of meat has led to a rise in new meat substitute products. 

There has been a lot of debate surrounding the impact these new products are having on the environment, and there are several factors to consider when making comparisons between meat and substitute products. For those who are opting for veganism or reduced meat consumption on environmental grounds, this article aims to provide some background information to help understand the impact both meat and meat substitutes have on the environment so that you can make informed purchasing choices. 

What are the impacts of your purchasing choices? 

Meat substitutes 

Meat substitutes are often seen as an environmentally friendly and healthy way of eating protein as they are plant-based and it appears that producing them does not have the same environmental impacts as traditional meat production. However, products such as Quorn and soy do have their own environmental footprints which should be considered. 

Quorn 

Quorn is a meat substitute produced from mycoprotein derived from the Fusarium venenatum fungus (soil mould). Quorn is made by a process of fermentation: the fungus is grown in oxygenated water in large tanks. Glucose and nitrogen are added to feed the fungus, then the mycoprotein is extracted and heat-treated. This mycoprotein is then processed to form the products you see in the supermarket. The production of Quorn products may not use much land, but it does use a considerable amount of water and energy. 

Land – The land required to produce Quorn is significantly lower than that for animal products. Quorn mince uses ⅛ of the land needed for beef production. 
Carbon– The greenhouse gas emissions for Quorn mince are 90% less than those for beef, and for Quorn pieces 70% less than those for chicken. 
– Production of these foodstuffs, however, is energy intensive. 
– Quorn has been working to make its processes more energy efficient through the use of wind power and improved vehicle utilisation. These changes have enabled the company to reduce its emissions by 15% from 2012–2015. 
Water– As Quorn is grown in water, it requires a significant amount in the production process. 
To make one kilogram of Quorn, 2000 litres of water are required. 

 

Soy products 

Soybeans are becoming increasingly popular as a meat alternative. They are high in protein and can be processed to make meat and dairy alternative products as well as tofu, which is made from soy milk. 

Land– Soy has become synonymous with deforestation in certain parts of the world. Over the past 20 years, the crop has been responsible for the felling of 300 million hectares of rainforest around the world. 
Carbon– Tropical countries in South America face emissions from deforestation and area conversion. 
– The Brazilian government estimates that the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the conversion of the Cerrado (the largest savanna region in South America, covering more than 20% of Brazil) are equivalent to more than half the total emissions from the UK for 2009. 
– Soy is used to make many different food products which are processed in many different ways. These production processes will require a significant amount of energy. 
Water– Unsustainable water use in irrigation systems can put strain on finite water supplies. 

 

Arguments for meat 

In the UK, replacing beef, sheep, pork and poultry meat in our diets with tofu, Quorn and pulses could increase the amount of land needed overseas. These substitutes, namely soy, chickpeas and lentils, are not commercially grown in Britain and are imported from predominantly Asia and North and South America. An increase in demand for these imported products could in turn lead to higher rates of land use change in these areas, as was the case in South America as the market for soy rapidly grew. Land use change can have devastating impacts on biodiversity and for communities across these regions. 

In the UK, pulses such as broad beans, dried peas and haricot beans have the potential to be produced at scale for human consumption. Doing so would have the potential to lessen the strain created by land use changes overseas. Research by the WWF has found that a switch from meat and dairy products to popular alternatives would decrease UK land use for livestock farming and increase overseas land use to produce the alternatives. 

Agriculture is well known for being a big producer of greenhouse gas emissions. As reported by the IPCC, livestock production accounts for 14.5% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions with roughly two thirds of this being caused by cattle. However, there are many different models of livestock production, and each has a different impact on the environment. Whether livestock is reared using grass-fed, grain-fed or soy-fed models (to name a few) will have a significant impact on the environmental footprint of the product in question. Grass-fed systems have lower embedded emissions associated with their use. 

Conclusion 

Both traditional meat products and meat substitute products have notable environmental impacts. These differ in that meat products produce considerable emissions from the animals themselves, whereas in the absence of animals, meat substitutes often require high energy use for processing. This processing requires large amounts of energy, generally obtained from fossil fuels. Many livestock systems, especially in the UK, are predominantly rainfed and meat is produced in areas of plentiful rainfall, relying very little on blue water compared to substitutes such as Quorn that require large amounts of blue water to grow and be processed. 

Those meat alternatives that go through fewer processes are, in most cases, less environmentally damaging. Products such as lentils, chickpeas and other pulses have a lesser impact than products like Quorn and those derived from soy. For meat, looking for locally reared, grass-fed products will have a lesser environmental footprint than products that are imported or raised using soy-based feeds.