This article is part of our special report Sustainable and healthy food.
SPECIAL REPORT / Vegetable-based foods may offer consumers a number of advantages compared to meats, such as lower fat content and a lower carbon. Bernard Deryckere, a soyfood industry leader, explains why he wants food to reflect its real costs and why he is not against animal-based products.
Bernard Deryckere is the president of the European Natural Soyfood Manufacturers Association. Koen Bouckaert is the strategy and business development director of Alpro, a Belgian soy, almond and hazelnut drink and yogurt producer. They spoke by telephone to EurActiv’s Marc Hall.
Why a diet with more ‘natural foods’ more sustainable?
Deryckere: In a nutshell, it’s because to produce vegetable proteins, it’s less consuming land, water and it’s less producing CO2, and that’s why it’s much better. I think today the sustainable production and consumption of foods, of animal origin represents probably one of the biggest environmental challenges for the agricultural sector.
An obvious solution to this challenge is to rebalance our consumption of animal-based products with more resource efficient foods that contain similar protein levels. Our view is that soy and plant-based foods can provide an answer here as they consistently out-perform animal products when comparing their environmental impact in terms of CO2 emissions, land and water use. To produce a litre of cow milk versus a litre of soy milk you need three times more land, 2.5 times more water and it’s creating five times more CO2.
We are not against animal proteins and that’s very important for us. We just want to rebalance the whole thing. With an increasing world population, we really need to look to alternatives to dairy products and meat.
Bouckaerts: I think that’s one part of the answer. I think there is a second element, which is linked to health. Or if we look to the food pyramid, or the circle as you refer to it in the UK, we see that there is a clear recommendation to diminish in fact animal-based products and to increase more plant-based foods, be it vegetables, be it fruits, be it protein-containing products, which are alternatives for dairy and meat, because what we see in there is, first of all, the fat composition is much more advantageous, in the sense that it has less of the bad fats, which are the so-called saturated fats and they have more of good fats, which are the unsaturated fats. Or also plant-based products do not, in fact, contain cholesterol at all, which indeed gives an opportunity to improve our health.
What can regulators do to move towards sustainable food?
Deryckere: I think today Europe is looking to protect the consumer, and I think that this is absolutely the first priority. From there on we have to work. First of all, I think that they have also a role to increase our awareness. When we speak about animal-based foods, we need to also speak about plant-based foods. We will have a new Common Agricultural Policy. It’s important that we give the opportunity to consumers that they start to be aware about their environmental impact of their food. It’s not only related to the transport of their food waste but it already starts at the source. That’s the second thing.
The third thing is that today we are in a bit of a legal vacuum. We are not allowed to call it soy milk, although it’s an alternative to milk. We have to speak about soy drink. And it means that for the moment we are in this complete vacuum. So the level playing field in terms of taxation is a problem. In certain countries, you know, milk is [paying] tax or levels which are much lower than plant-based foods, and sometimes we are associated to soft drinks and things like that. And that is a thing that’s important. I think Europe needs to solve this problem, to say to people that there are alternatives to plant-based foods, and three, to review the level playing field in terms of taxation.
Taxation, that’s interesting. You could draw a parallel with pricing, perhaps. Do you think that taxes and prices on foods need to reflect better their sustainability, their ‘real’ costs, perhaps?
Deryckere: Once, I was reading, and it was from a CEO of an oil company, that we should pay the ecological price. If we tomorrow, we start to pay the ecological price of dairy milk and meat, I think that price will go up. If we pay the ecological price of plant-based foods, [their] prices will go down. That’s the thing. We will have to help people to understand what they are doing. At the one side a healthy product, at the other side a healthy product for the human, a healthy product for the planet should have a better taxation level than products which are asking more resources to the planet. That’s for sure.
Bouckaerts: I think that is somewhat the vision for the long-term. If you think about what is feasible in the short-term, I think just a level playing field already would be a good start … at the current moment in time we’re somewhere penalised for being plant-based compared to some animal-based products.
Deryckere: It is sure that today the soy and the plant-based foods are still hampered by a number of regulatory hurdles. I just said about the main obstacle for the sector is unequal fiscal treatment of soy and plant-based foods in comparison to animal-based foods, despite them being full-fledged alternatives to dairy and meat products.
Current EU policy does not sufficiently support the cultivation of GMO-free soy products, despite a clear demand for GMO-free food by the consumer. 66% of the EU citizens are worried about GM in food and drinks, and thirdly European labelling rules are not yet fully harmonised across EU member states, which may result in consumer confusion. A clear labelling policy, [for example] lactose-free [labels] highlighting the health and environmental benefits of these products among the consumers. These are the three measures that Europe could take, even at short notice.
Do you see cutting food waste as one of the ways to provide food for a rising population?
Bouckaerts: Well, I fully agree on the topic on waste. The latest statistics show that about 40% of all the food which is produced in fact is wasted, be it at the agricultural step, because some crops don’t even leave the fields, be it in transport, towards the production plants, or be it even, and especially at consumption level, because consumers in fact through away quite some food. So we’re talking big big numbers. I’m seeing numbers indicating between 35 and 50 [%]. A general number that I think is accepted is that 40% of the food produced which is wasted. So it’s clearly a point in fact in which we have to work.
But it will not be enough. I think there are other measures, and one of these in fact it includes the message that we’re bringing over here, rebalancing a little our diet, in the sense that we should consume less animal-based products and more plant-based products, and as Bernard is already saying over here, it’s gradual rebalancing, and it’s quite possible that it will take one to two generations in order to make that happen.
Deryckere: The biggest waste is what we say, giving these plant-based proteins to animals, and these animals, giving us animal-based proteins. You can imagine what kind of waste we have there. I see figures, and I’m looking a little to Koen, that you could six to seven times feed more people by bringing immediately the plant-based proteins to the people, instead of giving it to an animal, which is giving then animal-based protein.
Consumers at the moment want to eat animal-based proteins. They don’t as much to eat vegetable-based proteins. Do you think they are willing to change their diets to consume more of these vegetable-based foods?
Deryckere: It is true that it is a challenge to convince consumers to change their eating habits and adopt a more sustainable diet for themselves and for the planet and this cannot be done overnight. It requires a mix of different actions, policy actions, actions by many stakeholders to promote these plant-based diets, and promote sustainable foods.
Although certain initiatives like the WWF’s Livewell plate, are early supported by the European Commission, the European Union should more strongly support the promotion of sustainable diets by delivering clear guidelines to the European consumer on what constitutes a sustainable diet.
Now the thing is that I’m looking to the members of the European Natural Soyfood Manufacturers Association, I think people don’t realise that in the last five to six years or perhaps a little bit more there was an enormous effort done in order to improve the taste of the products. Before that, healthy products did not always taste well.
I challenge you to go to the shop and buy the Alpro products, which are excellent products. We got different superior taste awards about it, because these products today are extremely tasty. Next to taste, we are coming the whole time with innovations. Next to soy-based products we were launching products based on almonds, based on rice, based on oats, based on hazelnut. And you know, I’m confronted the whole time in my neighbourhood and with my friends and things like that where people say wow we cannot believe anymore this was a soy product because these products became so good. People today are discovering new products. People are starting to understand, but it will take time. We will be certainly one of these generations that are coming slowly but certainly to these new products, and that’s why we are not against animal-based. We are just to review the balance, and to come with good products.
Bouckaerts: I think indeed that taste is still a main driver for people to select certain foods, and whenever people have tasty plant-based products and they get the health and sustainability on top of it for free. That’s the kind of mind-set that we have to have to be as close as possible to consumers.
A number of companies claim to be working to improve their sustainability, where do Alpro and other ENSA companies fit in?
Bouckaert: Well, I believe that the strength that we have in the industry is that we can link sustainability to the core of our company, which is the product itself. We don’t have to make some initiative of sustainability, I would say, around the strategy of the company but we incorporate sustainability in the heart itself of our companies, because it links to the core of our product, which is the product itself, because sustainability is given not to specific programmes next to the core of the company but through the core itself, which is plant-based products in fact, which are better for health and also better for the planet. I think that is distinguishing us from many companies.
Do you eat a lot of plant-based proteins, your own products?
Deryckere: We are not these kind of people black-white, so, personally I’m not against meat and I like also a piece of meat but what I did, and what I see with my kids is that we are eating more plant-based food and less animal-based foods. Are we still eating animal-base foods? Of course. It’s not about saying ‘oh, I don’t do that anymore, I only do that’; it’s about rebalancing.