We are told a lot about what we should or shouldn’t eat, as part of a balanced diet. However, despite the good advice we often don’t listen to what we’re told, or we don’t act on it. Food resonates with us at a deeply personal, emotional and cultural level. This means change is a challenge.
One piece of advice that you won’t hear very often is to eat less protein. This is because by and large protein is good for us. Partly as a result of this, most of us eat considerably more protein than we actually need in our diets. But there is a case to be made that we should be changing our protein consumption, to include a greater variety of choices.
Typically our meals are built around protein-rich main ingredients, which often represent the biggest environmental impact on our plates. And eating too much of some protein choices, such as processed and red meats, can increase the risk of exposure to several cancers or heart disease.
So our protein choices can have a serious impact both on the environment and our health. This matters because right now as a country we’re not eating sustainable diets, which has negative consequences ranging from obesity and the costs of ill-health to the NHS, through to biodiversity loss and climate change.
On a global level, the pressures on the environment of food production are increasing at a worrying rate. As billions become better off they are choosing to consume foods that have a more significant environmental impact, such as meat and dairy. These can require many times more water and land to produce than other protein choices. They also tend to have much higher carbon footprints.
Over the next decade the world’s demand for meat is expected to grow by around 55 million tonnes. To put that in context, that’s roughly equivalent to the meat from an extra 158 million cows, or from 37 billion chickens (which would be more than five additional chickens a year eaten by every person on the planet). And more than three-quarters of that increased demand is expected to come from developing countries.
Which is not to say that meat is a bad thing in itself, especially when it comes from places such as the UK and Ireland, where the climate and landscape are well-suited to raising livestock and levels of water stress are low. But looking at the bigger picture, this aggregate global demand will contribute to issues such as climate change, deforestation, degradation of agricultural land and loss of freshwater availability.
So what can we do about this in the UK?
Well, most of us eat meat every day. And only two out of every hundred people in the country are vegetarian. So the Carbon Trust investigated whether eating a greater variety of protein-rich main ingredients could be an effective and socially-acceptable way to create positive change.
Our research found that by embracing protein diversity would in most cases be better for individual health and the overall environment. It is also a message that doesn’t put people off, as it doesn’t take anything off the table and can make our diets more interesting and enjoyable.
In practical terms change doesn’t happen overnight. Some protein choices, such as sustainable fish, pulses and meat alternatives are already commonly eaten and could be scaled up easily. Others choices, such as insect and algae protein or lab grown meat, have a lot of commercial and behavioural barriers to overcome.
Most of us can only buy what is readily available in our local supermarkets or restaurants. But even then our choices are further limited by our tastes and habits, or even our skills in the kitchen. Very few people in the UK want to eat (perfectly edible) chicken feet. And not everyone has the knowledge to take the choke out of an artichoke.
There are a lot of different ways to practically promote protein diversity. Individuals can choose to change their eating patterns, looking at adopting more flexitarian diets where they consume fewer meals containing meat. Supermarkets and food service businesses can change the options available, changing demand through product innovation and reformulation, showing that this can be both more profitable and more sustainable. In fact everyone could gain by playing some part in promoting protein diversity, from government and farmers through to celebrity chefs and food bloggers.
There is a long way to go until we have created a sustainable food system, where everyone can has access to enough affordable food to support an enjoyable and healthy lifestyle, without this food causing unacceptable environmental or social harm. But protein diversity is a good place to start.
It is often said that variety is the spice of life. And when it comes to making choices about your main ingredients it is not just better for our lives here in Britain, it is better for life on this planet.