No apologies for devoting a lot of space to protein in one form or another. It is an important topic that we need to understand better.
There is an extremely interesting paper in Nature Food today. A group of scientists in Finland have modelled the environmental impact of replacing animal-source foods in European current diets with novel or plant-based foods. They conclude:
Replacing animal-source foods in current diets with novel foods reduced all environmental impacts by over 80% and still met nutrition and feasible consumption constraints.
Behind that conclusion lie several assumptions about how novel and future foods might be scaled up and also about the “less favourable profiles” nutritionally speaking of pulses and grains. That said, the model’s results are interesting to say the least.
The team modelled three kinds of diet: all novel and future foods, omnivore and vegan. To be perfectly honest the full paper is quite heavy going, but the bottom line seems to be that if you want a diet that minimises impact on global warming, land use and water use while meeting nutritional requirements, it is going to consist of an insect meal smoothie in cultured milk (i.e. made by cells in a bioreactor, not acted on by micro-organisms).
Given the difficulty, at least for me, of the full paper, I was glad to see an accompanying article, intended for the rest of us. Asaf Tzachor does a great job of explaining what these novel and future foods are and how the research “takes us one crucial step closer to dietary transition, starting in Europe”. He also says that “[f]ood regulators, standard setters and advisors … ought to be advised by this study,” but somehow I can’t help feeling that they — and we — still have a long way to go before any such transitions become an enticing reality.
Last word to the Finnish researchers, with an irrefutable conclusion:
Our findings suggest that diets could be more land, water and carbon efficient if people would be amenable to more abstemious consumption.
You want more? The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems — aka IPES-Food — has released its latest report on The Politics of Protein. As you might expect, it doesn’t pull any punches, saying fake meat “may not be as sustainable as its advocates claim” and pointing out that “[a] ‘protein obsession’ in marketing and media helps to bolster these technologies. A handy dandy factsheet distills some of the findings of the report, including the way Big Meat is investing in alternatives to ensure it becomes Big Protein, just in case that’s what people end up buying.
Well-meaning consumers of alternative proteins may not realise they’re buying into the same giant meat companies that are operating the biggest of factory farms, contributing to deforestation and forced labour, and slaughtering millions of animals everyday.
Personally, I’m reminded of the protein-requirement debates of the 1970s. While the recommended amounts vary according to age, health, activity levels etc. etc., by and large people in relatively well-off circumstances eat far more protein than they “need”. It seems to me that the emphasis on alternative sources of protein does little to address over-consumption. If anything, it probably promotes it.
As with so much of the food system, the problem is not how much is produced, but how it is distributed and to whom.
We all know that people in the US eat a lot of meat; total meat is around 55 kg per person per year. About 30 kg of that is beef. Less than 500 gm is lamb or mutton.
I confess that shocked me. I mean, I knew most Americans don’t go much for lamb, but really? So I was really pleased to be pointed to an article that went into The long history of Americans’ sheepishness about lamb in the Boston Globe. It explains that for much of the 19th century, “sheep meat was a rich person’s meal”. As the price of beef and pork came down, “Americans came to see mutton as an inferior substitute for beef and pork — you ate it only when there was nothing better available.”
The eye-opener, for me, was learning how two World Wars cemented the low status of lamb and mutton. A campaign in 1917 to eat no meat kept alive sheep needed for their wool. The ones that finally did go to slaughter were tough and strongly flavoured. In World War 2 cans of mutton fed Americans fighting in Europe, and that strong flavour, and the belief that many cans were rancid, caused many of them to swear off sheep meat for life.
While that may not be true, I’ve met many Americans who had nothing to do with World War 2 and express a visceral distaste for lamb. That may be changing, driven in part by innovative chefs and in part by 1st generation Americans who bring their taste for sheep meat with them.
Which is precisely what I need to remind myself next Easter. Instead of moaning about the small, bland abacchio in our local butcher, I should take myself off to a halal butcher and get a decent sized hunk of tasty, older lamb. Or even mutton. Bonus points because sheep meat is much less environmentally destructive than alternatives.
My ears pricked up — or did my eyes widen? — when I read that part of a Guardian headline. About time too. But while the article has a lot of background on both supermarket fake sourdough and the benefits of the real thing, the idea that the UK government is actually stepping in is, I fear, wishful thinking.
It is true that DEFRA, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, last year convened a technical working group to look into the regulations that cover “the compositional requirements of bread and flour” because, since Brexit, bread and flour in the UK are no longer governed by EU rules. And the Real Bread Campaign, which has long fought to protect the good name of sourdough, recently submitted its recommendations to the working group. However, they are up against a powerful industrial lobby and a government that has not so far shown much inclination to use Brexit to improve the country’s food system in any meaningful way.
In February a DEFRA spokesman once again explained that the government was not in favour of legislation on sourdough marketing “as long as it is not misleading” — the very heart of the Real Bread Campaign’s campaign — while also saying that the UK government “encourages further work on the draft industry code of practice”.
Call me cynical, but I don’t see change coming any time soon.
Two little tidbits.
Jeremy Parzen has written explaining the “monstrous paradox” of natural wines in Italy today. After the Vini Veri natural wine fair a couple of weeks ago, the organisers issued a kind of manifesto in which they chastised some makers of natural wines for becoming “perilously accustomed to technical imperfections,” which laxity, they say, has resulted in the production of “undrinkable liquids”. Yikes!
And Naomi Duguid pointed me to a charming essay by Mohammad Sayeed on poetry and coffee houses in Delhi (from 2017, but timeless for all that). “Is it possible” he asks “that Delhi was a city of coffee houses, like Cairo and Istanbul, before coffee houses became a cultural phenomenon in Europe?” Probably not, but a lovely read for all that.
Photo from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration