Vegetable-based foods such as potatoes, pulses and soy have been shown to have a lower carbon footprint than animal products, which account for about 33% of total greenhouse gas emissions for the food sector, according to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization from September.
Although, vegetables still account for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions they are considered more resource efficient in terms of water and land use, the report says.
According to Bernard Deryckere, president of the European Natural Soyfood Manufacturers association (ENSA), an obvious solution to the unsustainability of Europe’s food systems 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 as they consistently out-perform animal products when comparing their environmental impact in terms of CO2 emissions, land and water use,” he said.
According to the FAO study, pulses, such as peas and beans, are efficient sources of protein when compared with animal sources, because they require fewer inputs per kilogramme produced.
However, the picture becomes more complex when figures of food waste are taken into account. The authors of the FAO report combined the two figures, for greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint through wastage, to come up with a single “carbon intensity” rating.
According to FAO report, meat products constitute just 15% of global food wastage, whereas some 21% of vegetable and cereal food is wasted along the food chain, whether in fields, processing facilities, supermarkets or homes.
The Eurostat resource efficiency scorecard published today (6 December) attempts to break down the figures to show Europeans’ use of resources per sector. In the scorecard, Eurostat used FAO data to come up with a “calorie supply” rating for European foods.
Vegetal products, such as cereals, vegetables and legumes, accounted for 2,600 of the total calories supplied, compared with 1,100 for animal products, suggesting that they may be having a larger impact on the planet.
However, vegetal products, cereals in particular, form a larger part of the human diet than meats on average, adding to the complexity of the figures. When health effects and other indicators are taken into account, the data may indicate that vegetal products should occupy a larger proportion of the calorie share.
"Soy products are just such a product, an excellent protein source which can be produced with a low environmental footprint," said Janez Potočnik, the European commissioner for the environment, said in a video message at a conference, organised by ENSA on Wednesday.
However, commissioner Potočnik said that, in general, industry would "have to think longer-term and work together to safeguard their basic resources and reduce the impacts of their operations".
Tackling food waste has ‘most obvious benefits’
While many policymakers agree that Europe needs to tackle the over-consumption of food, in particular meat, another figure from the Eurostat report, the total calorie supply for each person, may indicate a more pressing problem.
The data reveals that in 2009 the total supply of food for Europeans was equal to a daily 3,700 calories per person, some 20% more than the recommended consumption level. This figure, which showed the amount of food available, differentiates from the average consumption level.
According to the FAO report, the world wastes about 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food each year, roughly one third of the amount that it produces. Potočnik said that the statistics made food waste the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the United States.
“When you consider that there are 870 million people going hungry every day, these figures are more astonishing,” he added.
Potočnik’s directorate is trying to take a pragmatic approach in improving the sustainability of Europe’s food systems, by focusing on food waste, a key component of the Commission’s roadmap to a resource efficient Europe.
The EU has set itself a target of halving the amount of edible food waste by 2020, and the almost complete elimination of landfilling.
“Food waste has the most obvious benefits for resource efficiency. It’s normal that policymakers focus on the things where you get the most results first,” Werner Bosmans, one of the authors of the roadmap and the official responsible for EU natural resource policies, said at the ENSA conference.