Changes in Consumption Patterns Options and Impacts of a Transition in Protein Foods

Harry Aiking, Xueqin Zhu, Ekko van Ierland, Frank Willemsen, Xinyou Yin and Jan Vos


Food sustainability and the protein chain

Food is important to individuals and society, providing nutrients and generating income (Tansey and Worsley, 1995). The relationships between food production, environment and society are complex. In fact, the evolution of agriculture has both shaped and been shaped by world population growth (Evans, 1998). At any rate, a major proportion of global environmental pressure is generated by food-related human activities. Crops are produced, transported, processed and turned into food products in ever larger volumes, with ever-increasing impacts on the environment (Smil, 2001; Tilman et al., 2002). Lindblom (1990) notes that, although sustainability is a socially accepted goal, relative consensus exists concerning its 'ills' (such as food production related impacts), but hardly concerning its 'ideals'. In this respect, some large multinationals (WBCSD, 2004) claim they can protect sustainability better than anyone else. However, their definition of sustainability does not coincide with that of the average consumer or NGO, the difference being in attributes such as 'natural' and 'just', in particular (Kloppenburg et al., 2000). In order to reduce global environmental change, the production of food, energy and water have been identified as three main targets for stepwise transition, instead of gradual improvement (Vellinga and Herb, 1999). Moreover, these three main activities are not independent of one another, since food production appropriates a major share of freshwater and energy produced. Therefore, when striving for a major step towards sustainable production in the next few decades, it should be realised that agriculture, climate change and land-use change are inextricably intertwined.

Within the realm of food, meat has a unique status since consumers endow it with esoteric qualities (Beardsworth and Keil, 1997). Furthermore, its production is responsible for a disproportionate share of environmental pressure. When

F. Brouwer andB.A McCarl (eds.), Agriculture and Climate Beyond2015, 171-189. © 2006 Springer. Printed in the Netherlands.

striving for sustainable food production and consumption systems (Aiking and Vellinga, 2000; Green et al., 1999), therefore, the protein chain is a good place to start for more than one reason. Due to continued growth of the world population and the proportion of meat in the global diet, the pressure of food production and consumption on the environment is rising steadily. A large proportion of this environmental pressure derives from meat production (Bradford, 1999; Delgado et al., 1999), due to the inherently inefficient conversion step from plant protein to animal protein. Already, we are feeding 40-50% of the global grain harvest to livestock (Evans, 1998; Smil, 2000). A significant amount of deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and pollution by harmful inputs - such as pesticides, fertilisers and greenhouse gases - might be avoided if protein-rich crops were destined for direct human consumption, rather than indirectly, via cattle feed. In this respect, the multidisciplinary PROFETAS programme1 (Aiking et al., 2000; Vellinga and Herb, 1999), endorsed by the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), aims to explore a (partial) transition from animal to plant protein as a means to decouple the increase in food demand from a concomitant increase in environmental pressure.

Establishing the boundary conditions

In order to develop more sustainable protein production PROFETAS did not have to start from scratch, since the results of a strategic programme on Sustainable Technology Development (STD) were available (Weaver et al., 2000). Though the latter had been a desk study exclusively, the STD programme had yielded clear conclusions on development of so-called Novel Protein Foods (NPFs). STD's rather convincing rationale had been that predicting actual products 10-40 years in advance is not feasible. So STD recommends that it is better to now develop the methodologies and the tools to facilitate problem solving in the future, as opposed to hardwired solutions for presently perceived future problems. The main conclusion of STD's NPF programme had been that trying to mimic whole meat chops (such as steaks or cutlets) with plant proteins is simply not feasible. Its main recommendation, therefore, was to develop novel plant protein products, which may serve as protein-containing meal ingredients.

Both the underlying toolbox philosophy and the ingredients focus were adopted, approximately focusing on the year 2020. Therefore, the programme should compare opportunities for the NPF sector with options for the intensive livestock sector. In addition, consumer preferences will be taken to be predominant in product development. Furthermore, environmental, industrial and social issues will be studied from the national and West-European perspectives in a global context, rather than vice versa. Although sustainability is a global issue, European researchers will experience difficulty enough trying to grasp what's on

'Under the PROFETAS (Protein Foods, Environment, Technology And Society) programme multidisciplinary researchers have been examining the dietary transition from meat towards NPFs (Novel Protein Foods) based on plant proteins. An interesting result is that combined sustainable production of both plant protein and biofuel is emerging as an important option, which may simultaneously mitigate agricultural resource depletion, agricultural pollution, and climate change.

the minds of European consumers (Verbeke, 1999), and could not possibly dream of modelling the non-European consumer with any degree of accuracy. Nevertheless, a trend setting Western diet change might have an impact world wide.

In summary, in 16 concerted projects PROFETAS (2005) studies the hypothesis that a substantial shift from animal to plant protein foods is environmentally more sustainable than present trends, technologically feasible, and socially desirable. The latter aspect includes environmental as well as economic considerations, thus leading to a clear transdisciplinary (environmental, economic, technological, ecological, political and chemical) design and evaluation of alternative protein production options and their impacts.

Consequences of a protein transition for European agriculture, climate change and future land-use patterns

As indicated above, changes in consumption patterns are required for environmental reasons (including climate change and resource depletion of agricultural land and freshwater). As a potential mitigation response, it is suggested above that even a partial transition from meat to NPFs would constitute an important step in that direction. Consequently, such a meat to NPFs transition might lead to huge changes in land-use during one generation (20 years). Drawing on selected PROFETAS results, it is the purpose of this chapter to underpin these assumptions. First, economic-environmental modelling will substantiate the necessity and impacts of a transition (why and how much?). Second, crop growth modelling will address the spatial component (where can we expect land-use changes in Europe?). Third, alternative crop options will be dealt with (which protein crops are realistic sustainable options?). Taken together, these three projects will provide us with a sneak preview of environmentally desirable changes in consumption patterns and the concomitant changes to be expected in land-use patterns beyond 2015. Through this approach the present chapter will contribute to the book's objective to delineate the major interactions between agriculture, climate change and changes in land-use patterns to be expected in the near future.


Reference chains

Food production and consumption are supported by the natural resource base and the environment, using them both as a source of inputs and for the disposal or recycling of wastes. Food production and consumption systems include the whole chain of human-organised activities from agriculture through food processing and retailing to the food service sector and, of course in consumption by households, including the activity of shopping, cooking and waste disposal. Any economic system in pursuit of sustainability needs to consider this system as a whole with its interconnecting regional, national and international dimensions.

Protein food production and consumption results in environmental impacts in all phases of the production and consumption chain. Two reference production and consumption chains were devised in the PROFETAS programme. For the animal protein chain, the pork chain was selected as a common reference meat chain since it makes a major contribution to the production of animal-based protein products (European Commission, 2002). Also pork production is characterised by the absence of secondary products such as milk or eggs. In addition, pigs are among the most efficient animals in converting feedstuffs and agricultural wastes (by-products) into high-quality protein for human consumption. Finally, pork production is causing large environmental impacts both in developing and developed countries (Bolsius and Frouws, 1996). For the plant protein chain, it has been decided in the PROFETAS programme to focus on NPFs from green peas as the model raw material (Aiking et al., 2000; Smil, 2002).

Pork production in the European Union (EU) has strong environmental impacts and impacts on human health and animal welfare. First of all, the intensive production system results in a series of environmental problems due to manure surplus, which affects the quality of soil, water and air.

Second, large-scale imports of feed determine that the problems related to the European and in particular the Dutch pork production system are not only local but also global. For example, the increased production of raw materials for animal feed in Thailand, Brazil and Argentina has resulted in large-scale deforestation. Feed production is quite land and water intensive, which imposes a strong pressure on natural resources in the developing world.

Third, concentration of livestock might lead to increases in the incidence of animal diseases (e.g. swine fever or foot-and-mouth-disease) and in the incidence of food-borne human diseases. Intensive animal production systems, especially in areas close to population concentrations, result in increased risks of disease infection to livestock as well as to human beings. Finally, intensive livestock production may also lead to practices with a negative impact on animal welfare.

What can be done about these problems? First, from an environmental point of view, more pork production could be located in areas with arable products. This would reduce feed transport, and fewer problems would arise in terms of air, water and soil pollution. Agriculture is, however, often the economic locomotive of a region and an important source of direct and indirect employment. For example, a reduction by 5 million pigs in the Netherlands would in the short run mean a loss of 28,000 jobs (Bolsius and Frouws, 1996). Simply closing pork production incurs economic costs. So we need to make a trade-off between environmental improvement and its economics impacts.

In the following sections we deal with several environmental and economic aspects of protein production and consumption chains. The objective is to understand the main environmental pressures of the pork chain and the NPFs chain, and to obtain some insights into the effects of a shift from animal protein foods to plant protein foods on the environment and the economy.

Environmental assessment

For the environmental assessment, life cycle analysis (LCA) was carried out for both the pork chain and the NPFs chain. Environmental life cycle assessment is a method for assessing the environmental impacts of a material, product, process or service throughout its entire life cycle. It is an increasingly important tool for supporting choices at both the policy and industry levels (Guinee, 1995; Mattsson, 1999). LCA is intended for comparative use, i.e. the results of LCA studies have a comparative significance rather than providing absolute values on the environmental impact related to the product.

For the LCA we first provide a systematic description of both protein chains, which is useful for developing a consistent framework for a quantitative analysis of the chain. Then we develop a number of environmental pressure indicators for the assessment of environmental impacts. Finally, we compare the indicators for both chains.

The pork chain includes several stages. Along the pork chain, crops are grown for the supply of compound feed. Such crops are processed into feed, which is then fed to pigs. Pigs are slaughtered, and parts of the carcass are processed into meat products and transported to the retailers for distribution. Finally, the consumers will prepare and consume the meat products. Similarly, a production and consumption chain of Novel Protein Foods includes agricultural production of peas, NPFs processing (including protein extraction, texturisation and flavour addition), distribution and consumption. Compared with the pork chain, the NPFs chain has fewer stages.

Feed is the main input for pork production and peas are the main input for NPF production. Both use land, water, energy, fertilisers and pesticides. Energy, fertiliser and pesticide production leads to emissions of gases (e.g. CO2, SO2 and NOx), minerals (e.g. N and P), and toxic substances (e.g. Cu, Zn). In addition, manure is also a main output, which leads in turn to emissions of minerals (e.g. N, P), and gaseous substances (e.g. NH3, CH4 and N2O).

Considering the diversity of the emissions and their environmental impacts, we define emission indicators based on environmental themes. The emissions contributing to the same environmental impact can be aggregated into one indicator. The emissions of CH4, CO2 and N2O lead to global warming and thus can be converted into CO2 equivalents. Similarly, the emissions of NH3, NOx and SO2 can be aggregated into an acidification indicator by using NH3 equivalents. Nitrogen (N) and phosphate (P) emissions to soil and water systems cause eutrophication and can be included in the eutrophication indicator by using N equivalents. Emissions from pesticides and fertilisers have effects of ecotoxicity and human toxicity. Finally, we include the direct pesticide use and fertiliser use as environmental indicators. Therefore, for the protein chains, we define five emission indicators: (i) CO2 equivalents for global warming, (ii) NH3 equivalents for acidification, (iii) N equivalents for eutrophication, (iv) pesticide use and (v) fertiliser use.

In addition to the environmental indicators, we define resource use indicators, because agriculture requires land and water as inputs. The consideration of land use is relevant, because there is a competition for available cropland (De Haan et al., 1997; Bradford, 1999). It is true that land use has other functions such as providing landscape, amenity and biodiversity. However, land use for crops also reduces the opportunity of land being used for other purposes. 'Saving land for nature' is advocated and the best quality farmland is already used for agriculture. This means that future land expansion would occur on marginal land that is vulnerable to degradation (Tilman et al., 2002). Therefore, land use can be viewed as an important resource indicator. Water use also is an example of natural resource use. Therefore, we include two resource use indicators: land use and water use.

We use 1,000 kg of protein consumption for both chains as a functional unit in the comparative LCA study. Table 10.1 shows the results of the study.

Table 10.1 Emission and resource use indicators per functional unit (1,000 kg consumable protein in both cases)



Ratio (pork/NPF)

Acidification (NH3 equivalent, kg)




Global warming (CO2 equivalent, kg)




Eutrophication (N equivalent, kg)




Pesticide use (active ingredient, kg)




Fertiliser use (N+P2O5, kg)




Water use (m3)




Land use (hectares)




Source: Zhu and Van Ierland (2004).

Source: Zhu and Van Ierland (2004).

The resulting LCAs show that the pork chain contributes to acidification 61 times more than the NPFs chain, to global warming 6.4 times more, and to eutrophication 6 times more. The pork chain also uses 1.6 times more pesticides, 3.4 times more fertilisers, 3.3 times more water and 2.8 times more land than the NPFs chain. According to these environmental indicators, the NPFs chain is clearly more environmentally friendly than the pork chain. So replacing animal protein by plant protein shows promise for reducing environmental pressures, in particular acidification.

However, some caution is needed for generalisation of the results to animal protein foods. For example, in the literature a much higher water use was reported for animal production than crop production, because pig feed (such as mixed corn-soybean feed) requires 10-16 times more water than grains and pulses in addition to the pigs' direct water consumption (Smil, 2000). Dutch pig feed used in our study consists of grains and pulses and food industry by-products. We consider water use for feed production and direct water consumption of pigs, but for simplification we did not include water use for processing. It should be realised that the difference in water use could be considerably larger if all water use categories would be included.

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