If there was ever any doubt about how urgently the climate crisis needs rectifying, the recent heatwave, during which the UK recorded its hottest ever temperature (40.2°C at Heathrow) whilst fires ripped through homes and farmland, served as another terrifying call-to-action.
Research suggests that Earth’s average temperature could be 1.1-5.4°C warmer in 2100 than it is today, due to heat-trapping greenhouse gases produced by human activity, which would have devastating effects on habitats and people worldwide – particularly the most vulnerable.
There’s no question: we need as many hands on deck as possible to tackle climate change. And, whilst there’s no denying that corporations (looking at you especially, energy companies) have the biggest role to play in reversing climate change, there are still measures that many of us, as individuals, can take to lessen our personal impact on the planet. One way to reduce our collective carbon footprint? Being mindful of what we eat and where it comes from.
It’s not new news that plant-based diets are, generally speaking, less harmful to the planet (though, that's not always the case). Food production is a major contributor to climate change, and 60% of the greenhouse gases it produces comes from meat. What is interesting, though, is that new research suggests plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy – the faux meats and milks of the world – could be both better for the environment and for human wellbeing than their animal product counterparts.
The review, published in Future Foods, looked at 43 studies on the environmental and health impact of plant-based foods and corresponding consumer behaviours. It found that whilst, yes, a diet comprising mostly of vegan whole foods is ideal, plant-based alternatives provide a more effective solution to reducing demand for meat and dairy, as they tend to mimic the flavours and textures of animal products. And, since 90% of people who consume plant-based alternatives are meat-eaters or flexitarians, recreating the experience of eating meat and dairy products is important.
Doesn’t cultivating plant-based products require similar resources to producing animal products, though? No – the review found that, compared to beef burgers, plant-based burgers are associated with up to 98% less greenhouse gas emissions. This is because producing animal products requires more agricultural land, more water, and it creates more pollution, too. In fact, researchers found that replacing just 5% of German beef consumption with pea protein could reduce CO2 emissions by a massive eight million tonnes a year.
‘Increasingly, we're seeing how plant-based products are able to shift demand away from animal products by appealing to three essential elements consumers want: taste, price and convenience,’ report author, Dr Chris Bryant from the University of Bath, said. And, our planet isn’t all that could potentially benefit from plant-based food swaps. ‘This review demonstrates overwhelming evidence that, as well as being far more sustainable compared to animal products in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use and land use, plant-based animal product alternatives also have a wide range of health benefits.’
When exploring the impact of plant-based alternatives on health, researchers found that 40% of conventional meat products are classified as “less healthy” compared to 14% of plant-based alternatives based on the UK’s Nutrient Profiling Model. This is believed to be because food producers can add ingredients to plant-based products that boost their nutritional profile. That said, there’s still a way to go before plant-based alternatives can, nutritionally speaking, fully replace animal products.
‘Despite the incredible advances that plant-based producers have made over recent years, there is still huge potential to improve their taste, texture and how they cook.’ said Dr Bryant. ‘There's also enormous potential to innovate with ingredients and processes to improve their nutritional properties – for example by boosting vitamin content.’
So, should you scrap steak Saturdays in favour of a Beyond Burger? Well, there’s lots to bear in mind when making any changes to your diet, including your wellbeing, food accessibility and affordability, practicality, and so on. If you’re keen to eat in a way that’s more sustainable for the planet, start small by eating plant-based (whether with meals featuring plant-based alternatives or purely whole foods) one day a week, and see how you get on. The aim is to do our best to minimise our impact on Earth, but remember that what we’re each able to achieve in the fight against climate change will differ massively.
You Might Also Like