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In addition to the significant benefits to climate, nature and water, the shift to sustainable proteins would help Europeans lead healthier lives and politicians would benefit through lower spending on healthcare, Nico Muzi writes.
Going meat-free for just two days a week in the EU and the UK has outsized environmental benefits.
Such a moderate shift toward plant-based eating could result in an impressive reduction of 81 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year.
This has a comparable impact to taking a quarter — or about 65 million — of all cars off the roads of the EU and the UK.
Additionally, as meat production takes up a lot more farmland than protein crop production, this shift would free up an area of land larger than the entire United Kingdom. It would also save 2.2 cubic kilometres of water, equivalent to 880,000 swimming pools’ worth of water annually.
We know and can prove all of this — it’s all in the results of a new study by research consultancy Profundo for Madre Brava.
In a nutshell, by replacing animal proteins with a mix of wholegrain vegetal proteins and novel plant-based meat alternatives, we are making a change that will have an exponential impact on the long-term health and viability of our planet.
This moderate shift to plant proteins makes sense from a health viewpoint. As it stands, citizens in Europe and the UK consume 80% more meat than the global average.
More worryingly, Europeans consume four times more red meat than the recommended intake levels according to health experts at the EAT-Lancet Commission, led by 37 world-leading scientists from 16 countries from various disciplines, who have defined targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production.
The plant switch also makes climate sense. The excessive consumption of animal products plays a substantial role in driving emissions in the EU’s food sector, contributing to 70% of all emissions linked to food consumption in the bloc.
Furthermore, meat and dairy production are the single largest sources of methane emissions in the EU, and the most potent contributor to climate change. If Brussels doesn’t address livestock emissions, agriculture is set to become the bloc’s largest climate-polluting sector by 2040.
What does Europe need?
Climate scientists agree that the only way to achieve the Paris Agreement goals is to significantly reduce the total production and consumption of meat globally.
In Europe, the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) explored what it would take for the EU agriculture sector to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Different scenarios leading to significant greenhouse gas emission reductions with a mix of different sustainable farming methods all require a 75% reduction of EU meat consumption by 2050 compared to 2010.
Europe needs diet shifts to decarbonise agriculture. Thus, the UK and the EU need to pay greater attention to the protein transition, alongside exploring sustainable intensification and methane mitigation technologies.
The good news is that consumers are, slowly but surely, coming along for the journey.
The number of Europeans who reportedly are cutting down on meat (known as flexitarians) is growing, every year. In some countries — the salient case being Germany — meat consumption has been falling consistently for the past five years.
While this is progress, dietary changes are not happening at the rate needed to bring down emissions in line with those needed to keep planetary heating within a safe threshold (1.5C).
Moreover, the onus for this transition should not rest on consumers’ shoulders. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.
What should happen?
Currently, meat and dairy production receive significant subsidies, lower value-added tax and funding for promotion and advertising, which puts plant-based foods and alternative proteins at a disadvantage.
Subsidies, taxes, public procurement and corporate strategies must be realigned to incentivize vegetal and alternative proteins, making them the cheapest, healthiest, and most convenient option for consumers.
Policymakers across Europe should also level the playing field between animal and plant-based products by removing funding for meat promotion and realigning taxes that favour animal-based products.
More importantly, the EU should go big with novel sustainable proteins. As it has done with hydrogen and batteries, the European Commission should come up with a big investment plan for the nascent novel sustainable protein industry to ensure Europe can lead (not follow) in the next food innovation.
Food retailers should chip in too. For decades, the food industry has played a significant role in shaping consumer attitudes and preferences.
Thus, it is only fitting that the food industry takes a leading role in encouraging better and more available choices of pulses, legumes, whole grains and alternative proteins.
There’s initial movement, with some supermarkets in Germany and The Netherlands setting up targets to increase the share of plant-based proteins in the overall protein portfolio. We need more ambition and more supermarkets in other European countries to follow suit.
Who would benefit from the shift to plants?
In addition to the significant benefits to climate, nature and water, the shift to sustainable proteins would help Europeans lead healthier lives and politicians would benefit through lower spending on healthcare.
Most importantly, the transition to plant-based diets could also offer more income and improved livelihoods for EU farmers.
If, on top of that, the EU decides to go big on novel sustainable proteins, the bloc could build an entirely new economic sector, creating thousands of new jobs.
European governments and food retailers should play a catalytic role in ensuring that sustainable proteins are the cheapest, healthiest and easiest choice for consumers when doing their food shop.
Nico Muzi is the managing director and co-founder of Madre Brava, a science-based advocacy organisation working to bring in line the food system with the 1.5C climate target.
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