By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
The International Food Policy Research Institute released the fifth Global Food Policy Report (GFPR) examining what has happened in food policy over the course of 2015. The topics examined in the Report range from strengthening the role of smallholder farmers in global food security and nutrition to dietary shifts that support sustainable development and food security. Of particular interest at both the release event and in the report was the examination of animal-based and plant-based protein consumption on food system sustainability.
As people around the globe escape the throes of poverty and in general become wealthier, there is a shift towards a meat and dairy heavy diet. As it is a resource-intensive source of calories and protein, this global shift towards increased consumption of animal-based proteins presents an obstacle in creating a sustainable food system. The nutrition and health benefits of animal-based proteins should not be overlooked: the amount of protein per serving; animal sources of protein often deliver all the amino acids humans need unlike cereals, fruits and vegetables; they can make other nutrients such as iron and zinc more bioavailable and they introduce a host of other nutrients and vitamins to the diet. Yet, meat and dairy, notably the overconsumption of such foods, challenges the ideals of a sustainable food system. And, as Janet Ranganathan of the World Resources Institute (WRI) shared at the release, “Food is the mother of all sustainability challenges.”
Of course, it isn’t news that animal-based foods put a strain on the environment and can impair human nutrition and health. Livestock production is resource-intensive, generates a considerable amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs), and can pollute land, air and water. Beef production, for instance, ties up one-quarter of the earth’s arable land as pasture alone and produces almost half of all agricultural GHG emissions. Additionally, beef requires more protein and calories than it can convert to human-edible protein and calories. It’s also widely recognized that overconsumption of animal-based protein can lead to heart disease, and chronic diseases and conditions such as cancer and obesity. Which all begs the question: is this a sustainable endeavor for food security? With an expected addition of 2 billion people by 2050 that will require closing a 70% food gap, it doesn’t seem the case.
One example of a more sustainable diet, as examined in Chapter 8 of the GFPR, would contain less animal-based protein. While the idea of substituting plant-based protein for animal-based proteins may seem contradictory to nutrition, health and food security insight, especially in a world with nearly 800 million people undernourished and 2 billion suffering micronutrient deficiencies consider this: 186 out of 205 countries are over consuming protein, with an emphasis on animal-based protein. This is based on the average adult protein requirement (animal or plant-based) of 50 grams per day. Nine countries are not getting enough protein regardless of source and three countries are getting exactly the average daily requirement from animal-sources. Many of the countries exceeding the protein requirement from animal-sources are also exceeding the requirement from plant-sources, demonstrating that a change in behavior would be without detriment to their health and nutrition (quite the contrary, arguably) and could play a huge role in reducing the environmental toll livestock production has.
The study included in Chapter 8 presents three proposed diet shifts representing reductions in animal-based foods that when compared to the average American diet, can significantly reduce agricultural land use, GHG emissions from agricultural production and GHG emissions from land-use change. In support of the proposed diet shifts, WRI also created a “Shift Wheel Framework for Shifting Consumption” that identifies the following strategies necessary to shift diets:
- Evolve social norms;
- Minimize disruption;
- Sell a compelling benefit and
- Maximize awareness
The diet shifts proposed in this chapter of the GFPR present opportunities to ensuring a sustainable food system and food security for all. More importantly, they highlight the power consumers have in contributing to a sustainable food system while also contributing to the achievement of multiple Sustainable Development Goals.
*All data from the 2016 Global Food Policy Report