How the food we eat is causing climate change and what can be done to reduce the carbon footprint of our food
Over 100 experts from both developed and developing economies had worked on the report, and hence the macro-aspect of all economies were taken into consideration.
If someone were to tell you that your food habits are fuelling global warming and slowing the process of curbing the ill-effects of climate change, you would probably feign ignorance, or even laugh out loud at the notion. But if the findings of scientists and climate policy experts are to be believed, consumption of meats, especially red meat and even dairy, is leading greenhouse gas emissions to peak.
As per Skeptical Science, a climate science information resource by Australian cognitive scientist John Cook, animal agriculture is responsible for 13-18% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Even though it is lesser than over 60% emissions caused by fossil fuel combustion, at a time when climate change-fuelled crises are looming large, curtailing global warming caused by our food habits can go a long way in securing the planet’s future.
Climate policy experts have long been researching on the issue, but the gumption for taking initiatives to combat effects of climate change has grown by leaps recently. A 2019 special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that adoption of plant-based diets is a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Over 100 experts from both developed and developing economies had worked on the report, and hence the macro-aspect of all economies were taken into consideration. “We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, had said on the report findings. “But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect,” he added.
Another 2018 report published in the journal Nature noted that in western countries, beef consumption needs to decline by as much as 90% and be replaced by five times more beans and pulses to avoid dangerous effects of climate change. Another 2019 report, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, weighed the different side-effects of food production. They included greenhouse gases, water and crop use, nitrogen or phosphorous from fertilisers, and the potential for biodiversity to take a hit should a region be converted into farmland. By managing all these factors, the report’s authors say climate change-inducing gases could be reduced and enough land could be reserved to feed the world’s growing population. A group of 30 scientists then worked on devising recommendations for a largely plant-based diet, with small, occasional allowances for meat, dairy, and sugar. “Even small increases in the consumption of red meat or dairy foods would make this goal difficult or impossible to achieve,” a summary of the report states.
Understanding the food chain and its implications on the environment are key towards getting a wholesome idea of the carbon footprint of animal agriculture. Primarily, intensive livestock-rearing is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. Cows and other ruminant animals (like goats and sheep) emit methane—a potent greenhouse gas—as they digest grasses and plants. Besides, methane is also emitted from manure, and nitrous oxide—another powerful greenhouse gas—is released from ruminant wastes on pastures and chemical fertilisers used on crops produced for cattle feed. Rising beef production also requires increasing quantities of land. The creation of new pastureland is often a consequence of massive deforestation. Livestock rearing also diverts water and grains to animals, which is less efficient than directing grains towards human consumption, as noted by experts.
Alternative foods market
This emphasis on vegetarianism and plant-based diets has resulted in the emergence of an entire market producing mock meats and meat substitutes. Major meat companies like Tyson Foods, Cargill, Maple Leaf Foods and Perdue have begun investing in the fast-growing alternative protein market. Mainstream fast-moving consumer goods companies like Hindustan Unilever and Nestlé have also introduced, in their overseas market, multiple vegetarian and vegan versions of their signature non-vegetarian and dairy-based products. From vegetarian smoked sausages to non-dairy ice creams and vegan mayo, HUL has had a number of “sustainable” products launches, while a plethora are in the offering by Unilever Food Solutions, which is working with chefs to create alternate recipes for its major non-vegetarian products. Nestlé, on the other hand, has resolved to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and has started working towards it by launching plant-based burgers and grounds in the US and Switzerland.
In India, there are several mock meat food brands working towards utilising the goodness of grains and plant-proteins to create healthy and affordable meat alternatives. While the products manufactured by them cannot be deemed “healthy” as they are machine produced, they certainly serve as healthier alternatives to meats, and contribute towards reducing food-originated carbon footprint. There are other plant-based and vegan food brands that have also come up to add more variety to the burgeoning space.
Udaipur-based GoodDot is one of the first companies to have started working in this domain, back in 2013. From 2013-2017 they undertook extensive research and development initiatives to come up with safe alternatives to meats, driven by their underlying motive to work towards preventing animal cruelty. Started by brother-sister duo Abhishek Sinha and Shruti Sonali, Good Dot makes meat alternatives out of soy, wheat and pea protein. They officially started manufacturing and marketing products 2017 onward. “We’ve always had some kind of affinity towards animals, and when my father got diagnosed with a heart condition, we discovered that adopting a vegetarian lifestyle would be much better,” recalls Sonali about the inception of the brand. Commenting about the legitimacy of Good Dot’s products, Sonali says that while the entire food chain has got infested with harmful chemicals, the Udaipur-based company makes preservative-free products. “A manufactured product cannot be the most healthy product out there, but it is a healthier alternative for sure. Our topline is growing 200% year-on-year and we label our products with complete transparency, which is well-received by our consumers,” she says.
A key player in plant-based foods segment is OZiva whose product range includes clean protein blends, plant-based micronutrients and plant nutrition for special dietary needs. Launched in 2016, OZiva has become the world’s first connected omni-channel nutrition brand where people can pick-up a product from anywhere and consult a human expert digitally. Talking about the rationale behind their inception, co-founder Aarti Gill says, “There is an emergence of ‘flexitarian’ consumers who are looking for cutting their meat intake and are looking to get the same or better nutrition from plant based products. The adoption comes in response to a combination of ethical, environmental or health concern.”
The company has an in-house R&D team that works on the formulation of potential products wherever the need is identified. They combine clean nutrients along with different plant extracts to bring the benefits of both the sciences to human body. “Being a clean label brand, it is very important for us to source the right ingredients. These ingredients are first sent to NABL accredited labs for rigorous quality checks which include nutrient profiling, any filler ingredients, heavy metals and toxicity check, potential allergens. Only after all the quality parameters are met, the ingredient is finalised,” says Gill, about their product manufacturing process.
Flexitarian over vegetarian
Even as the call for adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, and eliminating meat consumption is on the rise, experts argue that dairy intake causes as much damage to the environment, if not more. “The ecological footprint from shifting to a vegetarian lifestyle is very clear. Greenhouse gas emissions reduce, and the water and land used for animal-rearing also come down. However, even if you cut down consumption of meats and consume too much of dairy, then the carbon footprint remains unchanged,” says Delhi-based nutritionist and weight management consultant Kavita Devgan.
A 2019 research carried out by Johns Hopkins University in the US modelled the environmental impact of all major diets across 140 countries and concluded that those who switch to a vegetarian diet may be doing more harm than good. By giving up meat and supplementing overseas intake with dairy products such as Halloumi cheese, yogurt and crème fraîche, vegetarians only fractionally improved their carbon footprint. “Our study found that in the UK, switching to a vegetarian diet that includes eggs and dairy is actually less helpful for reducing greenhouse gas emissions than a diet that includes meat, dairy and eggs for one of three meals, and is exclusively plant-based for the other two meals,” Keeve Nachman, one of the paper’s authors said.
The research carried out in the UK particularly found that the average healthy two-thirds vegan diet contributed the equivalent of 762.7 kg of carbon dioxide emissions per-person, compared with 1,265.2 kg for a vegetarian diet that includes dairy. “For these reasons, I recommend adopting a flexitarian diet as opposed to a complete vegetarian lifestyle. For instance, rice production involves release of massive quantum of methane, but no one talks about it. Hence, it is recommended that people reduce carbon footprint by being more sensible and judicious in their food preferences,” Devgan says.
Nutritionists and dieticians also have their doubts around the mock meat market which only seems to be growing as consumers seek to replace meats in their diets. And then there are downsides to adopting a 100% vegetarian lifestyle too, as the protein intake would be lesser and dairy consumption presents its own set of cons. “I believe in a 70:30 ratio for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food consumption. And I’m definitely not in the favour of mock meats, because we are not sure of what chemicals are being used in their processes. The long-term benefits of consuming mock meats is still unknown, and it may be a long time before we discover those,” Devgan adds.