To change is difficult, but not changing can be fatal

The population on Earth reached the 8 billion milestone recently. COVID-19 caused unprecedented supply chain disruptions. Devastating natural disasters led to untold losses and damage. These events brought the issues of food security, sustainability, and climate change under increasing scrutiny. The current system appears to be unsustainable and inefficient. People are looking at different ways to feed the growing population, optimise the usage of Earth’s limited resources and minimise and eventually reverse the damage done to our planet.

Photo by Andreas Gücklhorn

At the forefront of this is the rise of alternative proteins, plant-based proteins in particular. The rapid advancement of food technology has propelled the quality of plant-based food closer to real meat products. There are also increasing concerns about the ethics, resource inefficiency, and pollution potential of the current livestock farming system. Conversations around plant-based products and meat products are now shifting beyond just taste, texture, and nutrition. For example, this year’s Earth Overshoot Day is one of the earliest dates yet. Reducing global meat consumption by half and replacing these calories through a vegetarian diet will move the date by 17 days.

The question on many people’s minds is “Are plant-based proteins really greener than meat and animal products?” We at Growthwell Foods believe that plant-based protein is kinder and more sustainable than meat products. This is why we are committed to providing accessible and affordable plant-based nutrition to 1 billion people.

A look into the carbon footprint of food products

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Focusing primarily on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions when measuring carbon footprints, leads to a tunnel vision and risks not painting a complete picture of the impact of agriculture and aquaculture on our climate. A more holistic approach would be to look at carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) emissions from various meat and non-meat products. CO2eq considers various greenhouse gases, not just CO2, and their impact on the amount of warming. It shows us a clear picture of the impact the different types of food products have on the environment.

Meat and seafood products account for a significant portion of the greenhouse gas emissions, more if you include dairy products and eggs. The difference is staggering. For example, every kilogram of beef produces more than 100 times the amount of CO2eq emission compared to peas.

An argument can be made that since the figures come from the global average, there is a possibility that this excludes certain regions that implement a more sustainable system. However, evidence suggests that plant-based food emits fewer greenhouse gases than meat and dairy, regardless of how they are produced. This means eating less meat almost always led to a lower carbon footprint than eating sustainable meat.

Diving into water usage

When considering the impact of food products on the environment, we must also consider the water footprint of the different food products. According to a study from Mekonnen & Hoekstra, meat products use significantly more water than crop products. Beef uses more than five times as much water per kilogram compared to oil crops (e.g. soybeans, sunflower seed, canola and rapeseed).

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The difference gets more pronounced when comparing water usage in terms of caloric value and protein value. For example, beef uses over eight times more water per kilocalorie and almost six times more water per gram of protein compared to pulses. In general, animal products have a larger water footprint than crop products.

While this means that a fully plant-based diet leads to a lower carbon and water footprint, we recognise that historically or culturally, meat products are a staple for many people. For some regions, meat products may be the more accessible food products for the locals. Therefore, substituting say beef or lamb for chicken is already a more effective way to reduce carbon and water footprints locally.

Digging into land use and soil fertility

If the world were to shift its agricultural focus away from livestock farming and towards crop farming, soil health and fertility will naturally be an area of focus and concern. While it is true that monoculture, the practice of growing the same crop on the same plot of land year after year, will deplete nutrients in the soil and cause significant erosion, there are many ways to mitigate that. One viable way is to practice crop rotation.

Another is to focus on crops that can replenish the topsoil. Pulses such as chickpeas bring nitrogen back to the topsoil, ensuring that the soil remains fertile. Not only are pulses hardy crops that can grow even in lower soil nutrient conditions, but their nitrogen-fixing capabilities also reduce or even remove the reliance on synthetic fertilisers. Excessive usage of which can cause soil acidification and water pollution. The numerous environmental benefits of chickpeas and their high nutritional value are why Growthwell Foods acquired the patent for the 90% chickpea protein isolate. We believe that it is the new and better plant protein ingredient.

According to an article from Good Food Institute (GFI), animal agriculture takes up 77% of all agricultural land on Earth and yet only produces 17% of our food supply. Cutting down livestock farming and using the land for crop production and practising sustainable farming techniques like crop rotation to ensure soil fertility leads to more efficient use of our already limited land and resources.

Dairy vs dairy alternatives

Aside from meat products, dairy production also uses much more resources and leaves a deeper mark on the environment than its plant-based milk counterpart. In one of the largest meta-analysis of food systems to date by Poore and Nemecek (2018), dairy milk requires up to 26 times more land compared to common plant-based milk, uses up to 22 times the amount of freshwater, emits up to 4.5 times the amount of greenhouse gas and causes up to 10 times the amount of pollution of ecosystems with excess nutrients (eutrophication).

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Evidence from the study suggests that switching to plant-based milk is a good way to reduce the environmental impact of an individual’s diet. Growthwell Foods is all about making a more nutritious and sustainable food system. Therefore, we have developed EPIC’C, plant-based milk made from our patented chickpea protein isolate. With the high nutritional value and invaluable soil fertility replenishing property of chickpeas, we believe that the EPIC’C Chickpea M!lk represents one of the better alternatives to dairy milk.

Food loss and food waste impact all

Food loss and food waste exacerbate food insecurity, puts unnecessary stress on our already limited resources and contribute to pollution. It doesn’t matter if it is plant-based products or animal products, both are impacted by food loss and food waste.

Photo by Marek Studzinski

A report from World Wildlife Fund estimates that the amount of food waste, from farm to fork, is up to a staggering 2.5 billion tonnes or 40% of the total food produced. What’s more chilling is that 2.5 billion tonnes may be a conservative estimate due to the methods used and data available.

Multiple approaches needed to ensure sustainability and food security

Photo by Elijah Hiett

In general, plant-based products are greener than animal products. However, there is no single magic bullet to tackle sustainability and food security. Everyone must come together and meet this challenge from multiple fronts. While cutting down meat consumption and replacing them with plant-based protein and vegetables is the way to go, it is equally important to continue to optimise the efficiency of the agriculture and aquaculture system, be it by crop production or livestock farming. Food wastage affects both meat and plant-based food products and managing it well is also a key component. We at Growthwell Foods are ready to play a part towards a greener and more sustainable food system.