Eat this and take the stress off the environment by 80%
Environment Climate Change Impacts

Eat this and take the stress off the environment by 80%

Chloe Todd
Chloe Todd

In 10 seconds? You guessed it right here is another study suggesting that we can drastically reduce the stress on the environment and slow down global warming. For this though, we'd need to give up some beloved dishes and switch to "novel foods".

I need to eat “novel foods”? Says who and what for? OK, so it was a Finnish team that made the calculations and before you dismiss them as another bunch of Scandi do-gooders, consider this: half a century ago Finland was on a mission to eat and smoke itself to death. The macho slogan was: “vegetables are for rabbits”. Since then, they have achieved a spectacular change and that’s why we need to hear them out at least. So, the message of the current study is: Switching from animal-sourced foods, such as meat and dairy, to diets based on “novel foods” can reduce the environmental impact of current European diets on global warming, land, and water use by over 80%. All while meeting nutritional needs!

I guess you’ll now launch into how harmful our diet is… Relax… somewhat! I’ll whip those Europeans instead as they were the subjects of the study. Right now, the European Union’s peoples are the second largest population that consumes more than the daily required amount of protein (oh, yeah… the US and Canada come in first). The majority of Europeans’ protein is from animal-sourced foods such as meat and dairy. The problem is this: animal-sourced foods account for 57% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of all food production, with the meat industry being the highest contributor.

I knew you'd take a shot at meat-eaters! Well, numbers are numbers! At over 17 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e*) per year, the global carbon footprint of animal-sourced food is 2,800 times more than the entire yearly emissions from the US (5,981.4 million tons CO2e in 2020) and equates to nearly 50% of all yearly global emissions combined (34.81 billion tons CO2e in 2020). For comparison, it’s estimated that the CO2e per ton of protein consumed for animal-sourced foods is ~ 4,146 tons, whereas for traditional plant-sourced foods (root veg, pulses, maize, rice, and wheat) it’s just ~ 23 tons of CO2e.

* CO2e is where all greenhouse gases are converted into equivalent amounts of CO2 sourced on the global warming potential (GWP) of each gas. For example, the GWP of CO2 over 100 years is 1, but it’s around 25 for methane, a much more harmful GHG than CO2 for the environment.

Are GHG gases the only thing we should be concerned about? No, land and water use are also much larger for animal-sourced products than for traditional plant-sourced foods. Land use is as much as 239 hectares per ton of protein consumed for animal-sourced foods, compared to 32 hectares for plant-sourced foods. Not only is land use linked to GHG emissions, but there are other negative impacts of using land for livestock. Think deforestation as a result of clearing land for grazing and growing crops for feed, and also the destruction of ecosystems due to an increase in monoculture (single crop) farming, which is also related to growing livestock feed. These issues will only worsen with the rise in population which is predicted to increase meat and dairy production. A related increase in water usage for animal-sourced food is also an issue as we could see a decline in the quality and amount of water available. As it is, water usage for animal-sourced food is nearly three times as much (282,000 m3 compared to 95,000 m3 for plant-sourced).

Okay. But what are those “novel foods” and how would they solve all this? Novel foods are those that are produced using new technology, such as cell-culturing, where food is ‘grown’ in a lab. Future foods are those which aren’t yet consumed or produced at a large capacity but have the potential… take a deep breath! I’m talking about insects and spirulina (a type of algae). Although seeing a global reduction in meat and dairy consumption, and/or an increase in switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet, can greatly reduce the carbon footprint for food production, the new study suggests that introducing ‘novel/future foods’ (NFFs) into the European diet will have the biggest impact by reducing global warming potential (GWP), water use and land use by over 80%. Although this study is focused solely on the European diet, the data suggest that similar results could be seen throughout other populations.

Future and novel foods examples, alongside traditional animal-sourced foods and plant-sourced foods. (Source: adapted from Parodi et al., 2018)
Future and novel foods examples, alongside traditional animal-sourced foods and plant-sourced foods. (Source: adapted from Parodi et al., 2018)

But do I really need to start eating insects?! Not necessarily! Eating insects doesn’t appeal to everyone. Somehow not surprisingly, scientists have found that they are the least accepted protein alternative. However, most NFFS have shown to be more complete in essential nutrients, such as protein and vitamins, than traditional plant-sourced foods, as well as animal-sourced foods. So, as well as reducing your environmental footprint, insects are a healthier alternative to meat! But don’t worry, if insects are not your thing, there are other alternatives. For example, mycoprotein is a lab-cultured fungus used to make meat substitutes, such as Quorn that achieved a significant reduction in GHG emissions, land use, and water use compared to meat (and even soy-based meat substitutes like tofu when comparing water use).

Lab-grown meats could be the future

If you haven’t already heard, scientists have figured out how to produce ‘cultured meat’ in the lab using stem cell and tissue culture technology.

Cultured meats are included in NFFs and so are already part of the equation when looking to adopt more sustainable food sources.

Although it's not yet available to buy, cultured meat is predicted to have up to 96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, and 96% lower water use than conventional meat.

However, improvements still need to be made, with regards to both the end product being accepted by consumers and the cost-effectiveness of production, to make cultured meat at the scale needed for the food supply.

Chloe Todd has curated 12 research papers, saving you 42 hours of reading time.

The Science Integrity Check of this 3-min Science Digest was performed by Dr. ASM Mainul Hasan.

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