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Where’s the beef: fake meat or real livestock production?

A portrait of a sustainable diet

Drawing from several studies carried out with the participation of INRA, scientists have drawn up a “sustainable” diet that is nutritious without compromising world food security or the environment. For developed countries, it comes down to eating a little less, cutting back on losses and waste, and boosting the share of plant-based proteins in diets.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Inge Laino
Updated on 03/14/2018
Published on 02/20/2017

fruit, vegetables and olive oil. © INRA
fruit, vegetables and olive oil © INRA

Cut back overall calorie intake in developed countries

The foresight study Agrimonde (2006-2011) (1) compared the food needs of the global population through to 2050 with the volume of available agricultural output. It showed that feeding the earth’s 9 billion inhabitants is an attainable goal, provided the average daily consumption of each person stays at 2,000kcal/day/person, i.e. 3,000kcal/day/person of available food (2).

The Agrimonde-Terra foresight study (2011-2016) (3), which picked up where Agrimonde left off, offers further insight. Based on the principle that there is no one-size-fits-all diet for all the people of the world, since dietary habits vary widely, Agrimonde-Terra uses four different dietary scenarios depending on region of the world, current situation, and established trends. Among them, the “Healthy” diet is one option, which, depending on the region of the world, means:

  • Bringing the food availability threshold back down to 3,000kcal/day/person in those regions that currently exceed that figure (USA, Europe, Russia, China, North Africa, etc.)
  • Increasing food availability to 2,750kcal/day/person in those regions that currently fall short of that figure (India, Central and East Africa, etc.)
  • Maintaining current food availability in those regions where the figure falls between 2,750 and 3,000kcal/day/person (West Africa, etc.)

This “Healthy” diet has been incorporated into one of the five land-use scenarios proposed by the study. Dubbed “Land use for food quality and healthy nutrition”, this is the scenario that scores best in terms of nutritional health (balanced diet, lower fat and sugar content, and fewer processed foods). It is also unmatched when it comes to the environment (organic matter cycle, greenhouse gas emissions). It provides food for the 9.7 billion people who are expected to inhabit the earth by 2050, without significantly increasing the surface area of cultivated land and with a moderate increase of pastureland (less than 10%) to the detriment of forests. It could go hand in hand with a cutback in waste and losses, but must be backed by strong public policy - notably nutritional and agricultural - and intense trade to balance out deficit countries. Of those, the Middle East, for example, which has reached its maximum production capacity, today depends on imports for 50% of its needs. Come 2050, that figure may jump to 70%.

Cutting back on animal protein in developed countries

What should the upper limit of protein consumption be, and what is the optimal plant protein to animal protein ratio? The question is the subject of debate. In 2007, AFSSA, the French food safety agency, claimed that the ratio could not be convincingly set for lack of knowledge. Moreover, it varies according to age.

Nevertheless, in developed countries, people consume more animal protein than they need. Indeed, in the west, diets consist of one third plant protein (by weight) for two thirds animal protein (meat, milk, eggs, fish), even though international recommendations call for a 50/50 split (4). It is therefore possible to reduce the share of animal protein in diets.

This is also what the Agrimonde-Terra “Healthy” diet calls for: a 50% decrease of animal products (in calories) in Europe and the USA (5) and a corresponding increase of grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables (6).

Public policy must foster these transitions with tools, price policies and public awareness-raising campaigns.

  Diets in 2010 (initial) and in 2050 according to Agrimonde-Terra’s Healthy scenario. © INRA
Diets in 2010 (initial) and in 2050 according to Agrimonde-Terra’s Healthy scenario © INRA

Reduce the intake of animal products in Europe: a reasonable goal

Trends in the consumption of animal products per person in 28-member EU. Source: FAOSTAT. © INRA, INRA
Trends in the consumption of animal products per person in 28-member EU. Source: FAOSTAT © INRA, INRA
As a general rule, when incomes increase, so too does the consumption of animal products. This is what happened in Europe between 1950 and 1980. However, there are exceptions to this rule: in modern-day Poland, meat consumption is falling even as incomes rise.

Overall, in Europe, people are eating fewer and fewer animal products, notably beef and lamb, and more and more poultry and seafood. Despite this, the consumption of animal protein in Europe remains twice as high as average global levels, and higher than WHO recommendations.


What about iron in meat products?

Graphic representation of blood © Fotolia
Graphic representation of blood © Fotolia

Recent studies have shown the key role that iron from meat and charcuterie plays in the onset of colon cancer (7), at consumption levels that far exceed those observed on average in western countries. Indeed, the iron in red blood cells oxidises lipids and promotes the formation of aldehydes, which in turn foster the development of cancer cells in the colon. At the same time, along with vitamin B12, it is this very same heme iron that gives meat and meat products its nutritional value, because it is the kind the human body absorbs best. One solution consists of eating meat with natural foods rich in antioxidants such as fruit and vegetables, while avoiding too much red meat and charcuterie.

It all comes back to a basic notion: balanced and varied meals with meat AND veggies!

Read the article.

(1) The Agrimonde foresight study (INRA-Cirad) sought to find ways to feed 9 billion people in 2050 sustainably.
(2) Consumption of 2000kcal/day/person implies a quantity of available food (food availability) of 3000kcal/day/person, because losses and waste must be taken into account. Average availability in developed countries is currently around 4000kcal/day/person.
(3) The Agrimonde-Terra foresight study (INRA-Cirad) continued along the lines of the Agrimonde foresight study by taking into account more specifically land availability and climate change.
(4) Average protein share in European diets = 59 to 114g/day/person (EFSA, 2012). WHO recommendations = 50 to 70g/day/person (Westhoek et al., 2011).
(5) But a stabilisation of animal products in diets in China and an increase in Africa and India.
(6) Read the INRA report: Pulses make a come-back.
(7) A study carried out between 1992 and 1998 in 10 European countries on a population of 50-year-old men and women confirms that the risk of developing colorectal cancer within the space of 10 years jumps from 1.28% in those who eat little red meat and charcuterie (less than 30g/day for men and less than 13g/day for women) to 1.71% in those who consume large amounts (more than 129g/day for men and more than 85g/day for women). Source in French.

At a glance

Consumption of all proteins (plant and animal combined):

  • In Europe: 59 to 114g/day/person
  • In France: 85 to 90g/day/person of which 60 to 65g animal-based
  • Recommended protein intake (WHO): 50 to 70g/day/person of which 25 to 35g animal-based

Other ways to improve diets

  • Cut back on salt, sugar and fat: the INRA-coordinated European project TeRiFiQ (2012-2016) proposes alternative recipes for several products (charcuteries, cheese, cakes and cookies, sauces) that significantly reduces their salt, sugar and fat content without sacrificing nutritional and sensory qualities. Technology transfer in progress. Read the press release.
  • Boost beneficial fatty acids: the INRA-coordinated Agralid (2013-2016) project showed that it is possible to improve fatty acid content by feeding animals microalgae or linseed. The project also offers a decision-making tool to achieve the most sustainable menus according to different constraints (availability of different foods, cost, environment).

Carbon footprint: meat is not the culprit

When it comes to the environment, contrary to popular belief, the carbon footprint of a diet with meat is no greater than that of a more plant-rich diet. That is what the DuALIne study (2009-2011), co-financed by INRA and Ademe, showed.

Other studies concur: carbon footprints depend more on the number of calories ingested than on the make-up of diets.

Carbon footprints of different diets. © INRA, Elsevier
Carbon footprints of different diets © INRA, Elsevier