For the planet’s sake

Good food is one of life’s great plea­sures. Is the diet of the fu­ture going to be all meat­less meat and in­sect-based pro­tein?

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Nicky Pel­le­grino

Good food is one of life’s great plea­sures. Is the diet of the fu­ture going to be all meat­less meat and in­sect-based pro­tein?

We share the planet with about 23 bil­lion chick­ens, tur­keys, geese, ducks and guinea fowl – three for ev­ery hu­man be­ing. And farm­ing these crea­tures – not to men­tion all the cows, sheep, pigs and goats – is threat­en­ing the Earth. Our ap­petite for eat­ing an­i­mals and their milk prod­ucts is con­tribut­ing to de­for­esta­tion, the ex­tinc­tion of species, pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change. Never be­fore has what we put on our plates been so fraught.

Lit­tle won­der that the num­ber of ve­gans in the UK has risen by 350% in the past decade, no­tably among younger peo­ple. Yet the im­per­a­tive to go an­i­mal-free is com­pli­cated by mis­in­for­ma­tion: Net­flix’s What the Health ad­vanced in­cen­di­ary claims about the dam­age an­i­mal prod­ucts are do­ing to us, but its as­ser­tion, for in­stance, that eat­ing an egg a day is equiv­a­lent to smok­ing five cig­a­rettes turned out to be short on ev­i­dence.

The grow­ing ab­so­lutism about food and the po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing ma­nia for so­called “clean eat­ing” moved food his­to­rian Bee Wil­son to speak out: hu­mans are om­ni­vores, she points out; we are used to eat­ing plants, but also a lit­tle meat.

THE HEALTHY TRAP

Meat and dairy are far from be­ing the whole cause of the prob­lem. Ac­cord­ing to 2015 re­search from Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity, eat­ing fewer calo­ries re­duces en­ergy use, wa­ter use and green­house gas emis­sions from the food sup­ply chain. How­ever, eat­ing the rec­om­mended “health­ier” foods – a mix of fruit, veg­eta­bles, dairy and seafood – in­creased the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact in all three cat­e­gories: en­ergy use went up by 38%, wa­ter use by 10% and CO emis­sions by 6%. 2

Let­tuce, the study found, is three times worse in terms of green­house gas emis­sions per calo­rie than bacon, be­cause the trans­port cost per calo­rie is higher. And be­cause it per­ishes more quickly, the pro­por­tion that goes to waste fur­ther in­creases its emis­sions foot­print.

Cer­tainly, leafy greens are good for you, but not all salad leaves are equally nu­tri­ent-dense: the pal­lid but pop­u­lar ice­berg let­tuce is lower in vi­ta­mins A, K and C, folic acid and an­tiox­i­dants than darker greens such as spinach and kale or red va­ri­eties such as lollo rosso. And the longer any leafy veg spends lan­guish­ing in the crisper drawer of the fridge, the more the vi­ta­min con­tent de­clines.

That’s not a rea­son to skip the sal­ads this sum­mer – es­pe­cially if you’re try­ing to lose weight. Re­searchers at Penn State Univer­sity found that eat­ing a large salad be­fore a main course re­duced to­tal calo­rie in­take by 12%.

DIG IT

For the good of the en­vi­ron­ment, your health and your taste­buds, the best op­tion is to grow your own. Ecol­o­gist and blog­ger Tim Martin dug up his lawn and turned his small back­yard in Auck­land’s Mt Welling­ton into a pro­duc­tive food gar­den over a decade ago.

He’s worked out that a cou­ple of hours’ toil a week saves him around $1300 a year. And his fam­ily get to eat fresh veg­eta­bles grown in soil he’s en­riched with lots of or­ganic mat­ter. His cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis showed that in terms of ef­fort, cost and in­put, salad greens were “a win­ner”.

Martin ad­vises di­rect-sow­ing mesclun seed in blocks rather than rows (it takes less space and crowds out weeds) and grow­ing va­ri­eties such as miner’s let­tuce, tat­soi and corn salad in the win­ter months. Pump­kins and pota­toes are also easy to grow but re­quire more space.

His plant-and-forget pick of the toma­toes is a her­itage va­ri­ety called green sausage, which has proved to be re­silient to pests and dis­eases. And broc­coli is a crop that’s worth grow­ing for health ben­e­fits: as soon as it’s picked, the nu­tri­tional qual­ity starts de­clin­ing and by the time shop-bought broc­coli gets eaten it might have lost around 80% of its cancer-fight­ing glu­cosi­no­lates.

Home­grown food also elim­i­nates food miles and cuts down pack­ag­ing, and you pro­duce far more va­ri­eties of veg than you’ll find in the su­per­mar­ket, so the fam­ily food­ies will be happy too.

A third of food pro­duced for hu­man con­sump­tion is lost or wasted. That ac­counts for 4.4 gi­ga­tonnes of green­house gas.

THE BEEF WITH MEAT

It’s long been known that a diet high in red meat and low in plant food is as­so­ci­ated with an in­creased risk of colorec­tal cancer – the sec­ond-high­est cause of cancer deaths

in New Zealand. Ja­pan once had one of the low­est rates of this dis­ease, but a huge in­crease in meat con­sump­tion has co­in­cided with a big jump in the incidence of colorec­tal cancer. The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO) es­ti­mates that the risk could in­crease by 17% for ev­ery 100g por­tion of red meat eaten daily.

How­ever, the smart eater won’t cut out meat en­tirely, but just have less of it. Lean red meat in par­tic­u­lar is a valu­able source of haem iron, which is much more eas­ily ab­sorbed than the iron found in veg­eta­bles and pulses such as beans, chick­peas and len­tils. De­mand in the UK for puy len­tils re­port­edly soared after four-year-old Prince Ge­orge was served them for his school lunch, but al­though they can be pre­pared tastily and are a good source of non-haem iron, you would have to eat a lot of them to meet daily iron needs.

Iron de­fi­ciency is a com­mon prob­lem par­tic­u­larly for women who are still men­stru­at­ing: it can cause fa­tigue and lower im­mu­nity. You can boost the iron ben­e­fit of any an­i­mal pro­tein you do eat by avoid­ing com­bin­ing it with foods that in­ter­fere with ab­sorp­tion – cal­cium-rich dairy with the same meal or tea or cof­fee within 30 min­utes.

With­out a doubt, we should eat less an­i­mal pro­tein for the planet’s sake. In a new re­port, called Ap­petite for De­struc­tion, con­ser­va­tion char­ity the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says that if we all ate to meet our nu­tri­onal re­quire­ments rather than our ap­petites, the to­tal agri­cul­tural land re­quired would de­cline by 13% and 650 mil­lion hectares could be re­tired from agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion. UK fig­ures sug­gest we’d be con­sum­ing 44-55g of pro­tein a day as op­posed to the cur­rent 64-88g, of which a third is meat or meat prod­ucts.

But a car­niv­o­rous en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist can eat a small amount of meat with a rea­son­ably good con­science. In 2012, re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Aberdeen ex­am­ined how to im­prove food choices in a way that would re­duce green­house gas emis­sions while still meet­ing the ba­sic re­quire­ments for health. They came up with a diet that re­duced emis­sions by 36% and was based on 52 foods in­clud­ing 372g of meat a week. (The same team also came up with a way to re­duce emis­sions by 90% but that in­volved re­strict­ing the diet to seven foods and chew­ing through large amounts of for­ti­fied

break­fast ce­real with­out milk).

The other ques­tion is whether grass-fed or grain-fed an­i­mals are bet­ter for us. Some stud­ies have shown that grass-fed red meat con­tains more omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotenes and vi­ta­min E and has less im­pact on choles­terol lev­els than grain-fed.

In­ten­sive, grain-fed an­i­mal farm­ing tends to pro­duce less-nu­tri­tious food than pas­toral farm­ing – one study shows six chick­ens raised that way to­day have the same amount of omega 3 found in just one in the 1970s.

If you are plan­ning to go ve­gan, you need to be aware of the risk of di­etary de­fi­ciency. Tofu, cooked beans and len­tils and iron­for­ti­fied break­fast ce­real are good sources of non-haem iron and com­bin­ing them with plenty of vi­ta­min C-rich foods such as cap­sicum, ki­wifruit and cit­rus will make it eas­ier to ab­sorb, but to main­tain healthy iron lev­els you may need to take a sup­ple­ment.

Ve­gans also risk miss­ing out on some of the es­sen­tial amino acids found in meat, so have to be care­ful to eat a wide va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent foods each day. And since plant-only di­ets are de­fi­cient in vi­ta­min B12, ve­gans should take sup­ple­ments or eat for­ti­fied foods.

FISHY BUSI­NESS

Many of us aren’t get­ting enough healthy omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. Re­cent re­search from Massey Univer­sity shows that only a third of preg­nant women are con­sum­ing the rec­om­mended 200mg a day. Fatty fish, such as tuna, salmon and sar­dines, are a rich source of these hearthealthy, anti-in­flam­ma­tory nu­tri­ents.

For­tu­nately, farmed fresh­wa­ter salmon rates as a good choice on Forest & Bird’s 2017 Best Fish Guide, which ranks the sus­tain­abil­ity of seafood (best­fishguide.org.nz or down­load­able as an app). Sea-farmed salmon is con­sid­ered an okay op­tion, and farmed paua, mus­sels and Pa­cific oys­ters can all stay on the menu, but much of the wild-caught fish that we tend to en­joy – snap­per and tarak­ihi, for in­stance – are ranked by Forest & Bird as “don’t eat”. The down­side of the guide is that you some­times need to know where and how a fish was caught be­fore you can as­sess its en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­cept­abil­ity, and that in­for­ma­tion is not usu­ally avail­able at the su­per­mar­ket counter or when or­der­ing in a restau­rant.

Go for farmed seafood and you can do so in the knowl­edge there are strict en­vi­ron­men­tal con­trols around aqua­cul­ture in this coun­try’s wa­ters. The Global Salmon Ini­tia­tive found the New Zealand king salmon in­dus­try has low lev­els of an­tibi­otic use, fish es­capes and sea lice. How­ever, mon­i­tor­ing has un­cov­ered pol­lu­tion of the seabed be­neath pens at some Marl­bor­ough Sounds fish farms. And farmed king salmon are meat eaters – they’re fed on a pel­let con­sist­ing of abat­toir by-prod­ucts, in­clud­ing of­f­cuts from poul­try pro­cess­ing. Fish oil is also added in or­der to boost omega-3 lev­els.

DAIRY-FREE MILK

Think­ing of switch­ing to al­mond milk for the sake of the planet? Grow­ing one al­mond re­quires about five litres of wa­ter and a large pro­por­tion of the world’s crop is pro­duced in drought-stricken Cal­i­for­nia. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of hectares there are planted with al­mond trees re­quir­ing ir­ri­ga­tion and cre­at­ing a mono­cul­ture that has been blamed for bee deaths and colony col­lapse.

Soy isn’t nec­es­sar­ily much bet­ter. The bulk of soy is grown for uses other than milk, such as an­i­mal feed, and the crop re­quires vast ex­panses of land. Soy­bean crops have contributed to de­for­esta­tion and the loss of valu­able ecosys­tems, hav­ing a devastating ef­fect on species in vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas such as the Ama­zon. So al­though the av­er­age Euro­pean con­sumes an es­ti­mated 61kg of soy each year, most of that is in­di­rectly via an­i­mal pro­teins rather than from tofu or soy milk.

The down­side of store-bought, plant-based milks is they are highly pro­cessed, some are sweet­ened and nu­tri­tional ben­e­fits vary. Al­mond is lower in pro­tein than dairy; soy has much less cal­cium (you can buy cal­ci­um­for­ti­fied soy milk but it isn’t quite as well ab­sorbed); rice milk has more cal­cium but is lower in pro­tein and higher in car­bo­hy­drate.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of dairy farm­ing in this coun­try is quite prop­erly un­der scru­tiny, but cows’ milk prod­ucts do pro­vide good­value nour­ish­ment – a use­ful pack­age of pro­tein, vi­ta­mins A, B12 and ri­boflavin, and im­por­tant min­er­als such as cal­cium, io­dine, phos­pho­rus and zinc. Adults should aim for two serv­ings daily; chil­dren and older adults should try for three.

Grow­ing one al­mond re­quires about five litres of wa­ter, and al­mond mono­cul­ture has been blamed for bee deaths and colony col­lapse.

EAT UP

So you’ve re­duced your an­i­mal pro­teins, switched to sus­tain­able seafood and started eat­ing lo­cally and sea­son­ally. But if you’re throw­ing out food rather than con­sum­ing it, you’re wast­ing the re­sources that went into its pro­duc­tion and send­ing it to a land­fill where it will re­lease meth­ane as it de­com­poses with­out oxy­gen.

A third of food pro­duced for hu­man con­sump­tion is lost or wasted, ac­cord­ing to the UN. That ac­counts for 4.4 gi­ga­tonnes of green­house gas emis­sions – so if food waste were a coun­try, it would be the third-largest pro­ducer of car­bon emis­sions be­hind China and the US.

In New Zealand, we throw away 122,547 tonnes of food a year. The most wasted item is bread, but we’re also chuck­ing away left­overs, pota­toes, ap­ples, poul­try, ba­nanas and let­tuce. And larger house­holds, such as fam­i­lies and big flats, tend to waste most food.

The web­site love­food­hate­waste.co.nz is filled with tips for stor­ing food (keep your onions away from your pota­toes or they’ll cause each other to sprout) and for us­ing left­overs and recipes that in­cor­po­rate stuff we tend to bin – even a ba­nana-peel dhal for the more ad­ven­tur­ous palate.

Since the Love Food Hate Waste cam­paign be­gan in 2015, there’s been a de­crease in waste and a re­ported in­crease in com­mu­nity fridges and food banks, where busi­nesses and the pub­lic can do­nate ed­i­ble food that would oth­er­wise go to waste, help­ing feed the hun­gry in the process.

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