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Sustainability is tempting

A more sustainable diet with the consumption of food with a low environmental impact.

by Andrea Daniele Signorelli
18 November 2020
6 min read
by Andrea Daniele Signorelli
18 November 2020
6 min read

What do meat, sugar and processed flour have in common? According to The Lancet, above all they are some of the most harmful foods to human health. However, these same foods are also the worst offenders from an environmental impact perspective. The numbers leave no room for doubt. Cattle farming causes around 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. This percentage rises considerably if other types of farming (chickens, pigs and fish) are also taken into account, reaching as much as 37%. 

Eating more sustainable food

That is not all. The meat industry provides humans with only 18% of their necessary calorie intake, but uses 80% of the world's cultivated land to make this modest contribution. One kilo of beef also requires ten kilos of wheat and (according to some estimates) over 5,000 litres of water. In relation to flour and sugar, the WWF highlights how, in terms of water consumption and pollution, the environmental impact from the production of these foods is “particularly worrying”. The only logical conclusion is that healthier food also involves eating more sustainably, choosing foods with a low environmental impact. Only by being more careful about what we eat can we improve our chances of protecting the planet. How should we eat then, to ensure the future of the Earth? And as a result, what will tomorrow's food be like?

Mind what you drink

Some trials (and even some of the products that have actually been brought to the market) seem to suggest a food-sustainable future involves saying goodbye to the pleasures of good food. Quality food replaced by pills that provide the necessary calories and nutrients without us having to spend even a minute cooking. Not to mention powdered drinks mixed with water, providing everything and only what the human body needs (mainly proteins and vitamins). Indeed, these products often have a very low environmental footprint, as well as being ethical from an animal welfare point of view

But are they good for our health? Beyond the fact that eating is one of life's joys, the main problem is they do not seem to be ideal for our physical well-being either. Nutritional expert Joanna Blythman has pointed out how these products contain the presence of strong sweeteners. On the other hand, these foods seem to be designed primarily for the hectic lives we lead today, to the extent that we don’t have time to eat lunch or prepare a leisurely dinner.

Alternatives to meat

These traditional food substitutes are not really aimed at making us eat more healthily or protecting the planet, but to meet the needs, especially of younger generations, of keeping eating time to a minimum. If we really want to find foods that combine protecting the environmental and our health, then we have to look elsewhere. From this point of view, there are two alternatives to traditional food (where meat, especially in the West, plays such an important role). The first, already on supermarket shelves for some time and now also found in Italy, is the latest generation of plant-based burgers

The best known of these meat alternatives is the "Impossible Burger" (followed closely by the "Incredible Burger" and "Beyond Meat"), a food that uses heme (the ferrous molecule of hemoglobin) to make vegetarian meat that looks and tastes like a classic burger. Version 2.0 also uses soya and potatoes to improve the texture, while sunflower and coconut oil are used to imitate fat. The reality is that, from a health point of view, the "Impossible Burger" is very similar to the beef we usually eat. However, its more widespread consumption could be very good news for the planet. To produce one kilo of this "vegetarian meat" 87% less water is used, 96% less land and 89% fewer emissions are produced.


Sustainable vegetarian meat from Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger.

Food engineering

A second process that could help us on the path to being free from meat, or at least significantly reduce our consumption levels, is what is known as food engineering. But what is it? To really understand this process, we have to go back to experiments carried out in 2018. Australian researchers designed a banana rich in provitamin A, not commonly found in bananas other than in a particular variant native to Papua New Guinea (whose genes were indeed used). A genetically modified food of this kind can be extraordinary important in countries where the fruit is a staple of the national diet. In Uganda, for example, it’s possible to improve the population’s diet by boosting the provitamin A content of bananas.

There are obviously many more potential applications for this, most importantly the possibility of increasing the nutritional value of fruit, cereals and vegetables. Adding proteins, omega-3, iron and other nutrients would help in the move away from meat and thereby help protect the planet. However, these food engineering methods raise quite a few concerns, often being seen as heavy handed human interference in natural processes. Critics argue that, at the very least, they are disrespectful to the Earth’s fruits and may perhaps even conceal some as yet unknown danger.

Nature as we like it

The truth is actually quite different. As BBC Science explains, the fruit and vegetables we eat today are nothing like their original variations. Carrots weren’t orange but white and much smaller, watermelons were bitter, peaches were the size of cherries and so on. The types we eat today also contain about a third less vitamins. This is because, even without using advanced genetic modification techniques, humans have selectively grown fruit and vegetables for thousands of years, changing them so radically that their original wild variants are unknown to us.

In short, since the Neolithic agricultural revolution, we have been engineering food to adapt it to our needs and tastes. Should we now suddenly be hesitating when genetically modified food offers one of the most promising ways to promote our planet’s sustainability?

The author: Andrea Daniele Signorelli

Freelance journalist, writes about New Technologies, Politics and Society.