Vegetable Protein is More Sustainable for Environment and Healthier for People, Dutch Study Finds

April 28, 2006

Brussels, Apr 2006

A Dutch study points out the potential benefits to the environment, including biodiversity, human health and sustainable agriculture, of eating less meat. With obesity expanding across Europe and major questions being raised about biodiversity loss and sustainable food-production practices, these findings give pause for thought.

In their study of more sustainable protein alternatives, researchers from three Dutch universities have worked together to come up with some novel reasons to cut our meat intake. They say we should look to make the transition from meat proteins to vegetable alternatives.

This so-called "protein transition", the scientists suggest, will positively affect everything from sustainable energy production and water use, to biodiversity, human health and animal welfare. They are not calling for "collective vegeterianism", they claim, "but good-tasting, high-quality meat substitutes ought to be used more often".

In an example of co-operative research, the 'Profetas' study was carried out by 19 economists, consumer researchers, food technologists, sociologists, political scientists, ecologists and chemists from the universities of Twente and Wageningen, and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA).

The study will appear in a book called 'Sustainable Protein Production and Consumption: Pigs or Peas?', presented this month to the Dutch Minister for Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. And according to a statement at the book launch, this subject should be of interest to an even wider cross-section than those who took part in Profetas (Protein foods, environment, technology and society), including policy-makers and even consumers.

Facts about meat

To produce 1kg of animal protein, it takes between 3 and 10kg of plant protein, depending on the particular animal species. This kilo of meat could need up to 15m³ of water; for example, one kilo of lamb requires 10m³, while the equivalent in grain takes a maximum of 3m³.

Between 1950 and 2000, the world's population doubled from 2.7 to 6.7 billion people, while meat production increased fivefold from 45 to 233 billion kilos per year. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts a global population of 9 billion people in 2050, and meat production of 450 billion kilos per annum.

Proefetas is calling for more meat protein substitutes in the form of Novel Protein Foods (NPFs), based on plant proteins derived from, for example, peas or soya. "While we don't all have to adopt a vegetarian diet, a change in production is necessary, and above all, a change in mentality," they say in a statement.

"It is true that, in Western countries, meat substitutes are increasingly popular, but the consumption of meat remains persistently high," they continue. Even in industrialising countries, such as China, where meat consumption was lower, it is now rising rapidly. "To achieve real change – a transition – this trend must be reversed on a global scale," they conclude.

For energy production, the researchers found that the biomass potential of more cropping would help meet the world's growing consumption with sustainable sources. Less meat eating, they say, would help the livestock industry focus effort on higher-quality diease-free production. But improvements in people's health, especially reducing the incidence of obesity-related diseases, with more vegetable intake and less meat would be a signficant result of a protein transition. This, in turn, would help the EU attain several of its own goals in relation to sustainable energy production, food quality and safety, animal welfare, the environment and the UN Millennium Development Goals of eradicating poverty.

1975 book putting forward this idea and evidence for it: Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe

DG Research
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