At some point in the remainder of the century, the food production system will collapse. Its most critical link is meat, particularly beef. Its production has doubled in sixty years, according to FAO data. 80% of agricultural land is for cows, pigs or chickens, either in the form of pasture or to grow the grain to feed them. Agriculture is responsible for a third of the emissions behind climate change, with cattle once again being the main emitter. This entire scenario will be surpassed by the increase in the world population and the improvement in the standard of living and, therefore, in the diet. Either they stop consuming so much meat or they look for other sources of animal protein. Science is already pointing to several alternatives: insects, laboratory meat or nutrients of microbial origin. Different models indicate that they are as or more friendly to the planet than vegetarian diets.
Scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Assessment (PIK, in Germany) and the World Center for Plants (Taiwan) have modeled what would happen if a percentage of the meat present in the diet were changed to alternatives that try to imitate it. The work, published a few days ago in Nature, focuses on one of these alternatives, proteins from fungi. Isabelle Weindl, PIK researcher and co-author of the study, explains the choice: “There are plant-based ones, such as soy burgers, and animal cells grown in a Petri dish, also known as cultured meat. But there are also the microbial proteins derived from fermentation.” For her, they are the most promising. With a high protein content, its texture is reminiscent of a steak thanks to the filamentous structure of the mycelium of fungi such as fusarium venenatum. In addition, it is different from vegetable alternatives such as tofu or seitan, among its components is a series of essential amino acids. There are already sausages, hamburgers and something similar to St. James made with these mushroom mycoproteins.
“Microbial protein requires much less agricultural land than ruminant meat to provide the same amount of protein”
Isabelle Weindl, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Study
But the most important thing is that its production can be largely decoupled from agricultural production. They do not require the deforestation of new areas and would free up millions of hectares now cultivated. “Our results show that even taking into account sugar as a raw material, microbial protein requires much less agricultural land than ruminant meat to offer the same amount of protein,” says the German scientist.
Weindl and colleagues’ work envisions that, by 2050, a certain percentage of meat in the diet is replaced by these microbial proteins. If, within 30 years, it were possible to replace 80% of animal proteins with fungal ones, the problem of global deforestation would have almost disappeared, especially in the Amazon and Congo basins, the most affected today. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the reduction compared to a meat production scenario without changes would be 87%. Although new land would have to be dedicated to growing sugar cane or sugar beets (sugars are essential for fermentation), it could be taken from reclaimed pasture and fodder crops. In addition, with fewer cows ruminating, there would be lower emissions of methane, a gas with a warming potential 23 times higher than that of CO₂.
Even in a less ambitious scenario, with 20% substitution, the improvement would also be very large. Says Florian Humpenöder, also from PIK and first author of the study: “We see that if we replace 20% of ruminant meat per capita by 2050, annual deforestation and CO₂ emissions from land use change would be reduced. half compared to a conventional scenario.” Reducing livestock numbers not only reduces pressure on the land, explains Humpenöder, but also decreases methane emissions from livestock and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizing forage or from manure management.
“The foods with the greatest potential turn out to be insect meal and cultured milk”
Rachel Mazac, researcher at the Institute of Sciences for Sustainability at the University of Helsinki
Rachel Mazac, a researcher at the Institute of Sciences for Sustainability at the University of Helsinki, published a paper at the end of April on the incorporation of so-called new foods into the European diet and how they would help reduce the environmental impact of food production. In an email she summarizes the results of this work: “The foods with the greatest potential turn out to be insect meal and cultured milk.” But she also singles out microbial proteins, selected for “lower impact and a nutritional profile that meets our dietary requirements.”
The research, published in Nature Food, concludes that replacing proteins of animal origin with those offered by these new foods could reduce the potential for climate change associated with those proteins, the use of water and land by more than 80%. When comparing a vegetarian/vegan diet and one enriched with insects, fermented dairy and mycoproteins, this study finds a slight advantage for the former over the latter, but, as Mazac says, with a vegan diet people “will also be able to stay healthy, feel good and have less environmental impact”.
From a nutritional point of view, it seems healthy to significantly reduce the consumption of animal products in current European diets. Both Mazac and Humpenöder now show that these alternatives to animal proteins are also good for the planet. A well-known supermarket chain has been selling insects for five years. The dietary corners of many grocery stores have had a variety of plant-based meats for a long time, and the European Union authorized in February the marketing and sale of acheta domesticus, crickets, as food. But that they end up sneaking into the real diet of the majority is something else.
For Ascensión Marcos, research professor at the Institute of Food Science and Technology and Nutrition of the CSIC (ICTAN), much more research is still needed for these models to have a real application and, she says, “many unknowns remain to be resolved”. One of them is the palatability of these new foods. “If they don’t like it, they don’t like it,” she recalls. Acknowledging that it is something essentially cultural, she comments that “it is one thing to give insects to an animal and you eat the animal and another to be the one to eat the insect”. However, she recalls that there are historical examples of cultural changes that have lowered or eliminated the aversion to certain foods. She mentions the case of ham in East Asia or “seafood, which for the Japanese was like eating insects”.
Another objection that Marcos raises goes beyond science. “Whether we like it or not, we are omnivores and we have to eat everything.” The real problem, he concludes, “is that we have a very poor diet, we eat too much protein, too little carbohydrate and too much fat; this has its impact on us and on the environment and the food industry does not help”.
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