Alimentarium series: 1.The intricacies and impact of consumption

This post is part of a collaboration with the Alimentarium in Vevey, in the context of the #VEGAN exhibition. Find more on their website (including the video, as well as French and German versions) or visit the museum!

Today’s scientists agree that modern societies’ consumption of meat is a cause for concern for the environment and for consumer health. On the production side, livestock farming, including farming for meat, accounts for 80% of the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. It also requires one third of the world’s cultivated land (not including pastureland) to feed these animals. This means that meat consumption also has a significant impact on biodiversity. On top of this, many of today’s public health problems stem from our sedentary lifestyles combined with an imbalanced diet. Products of animal origin, whether in their raw or processed form (cold cuts, cheese…) weigh heavily in this disequilibrium.

Such findings call for change, but what kind of change? Should we produce and eat less meat, and only meat that is more sustainable? Should we substitute meat in our diets? If so, with what? Or stop eating it altogether?

Such questions confront us with the complexity of food systems. In fact, food production involves many interconnected areas, and exploring the impact of a particular foodstuff rarely gives clear answers. There are various implications for the environment, such as CO2, water, soil, and biodiversity, making it tricky to compare different foodstuffs. How do you choose between grass-fed beef from pastureland with high biodiversity, purchased from the producer, and soya tofu that has been packaged in plastic and is potentially linked to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest? Experts have devised evaluation tools using standard units such as carbon equivalents. However, such tools have their shortcomings and we cannot redo such complex calculations over and again. Opting to stop consuming animal products is often an ethical choice motivated by the desire to prevent animal suffering for our food or even our clothing. Many people are upset by the conditions in which farm animals are kept in industrial agricultural models. So, is ‘no meat’ a sound ethical choice?

Vegans often turn to nuts as an alternative source of nutrients, especially cashew nuts, which can be used to make a sort of ‘cheese’. In recent years however, the conditions under which cashew nuts are produced have come under fire, especially regarding the shelling phase, which mostly takes place in India. Cashew nuts release a caustic phytotoxin and this affects the health of those who extract the nuts from the cashew apples. This job falls mostly to women, who work without any proper protection and for very low wages (between 4 and 6 euros a day). Yet, despite the precarious conditions and the risks involved, such work is a lifeline for these people. In several countries, cashew cultivation is in fact integrated in plans to alleviate poverty and in reforestation strategies for sustainable development.

Finally, there is also some ambiguity regarding the health issues related to meat consumption. Most Western consumers regularly exceed the recommended maximum of two to three portions of meat a week. Excessive consumption has been linked with cardiovascular problems and some forms of cancer. According to some studies, vegetarians and vegans are healthier overall. Nonetheless, public health specialists do not promote veganism. This is because vegetable proteins are not always of equivalent quality, and because vitamin B12 is only found in animal products and a deficiency of this vitamin may cause anaemia. It is therefore highly recommended for vegans to take food supplements. Official guidelines in several countries, including France and Switzerland, advise vegans to be monitored by a nutritionist. This clashes with the idea that this way of eating would essentially be healthier. Recently, synthetic meat and dairy products, i.e. which have been developed in a lab and do not involve breeding or slaughtering animals, are no longer just science fiction. Companies such as Perfect Day in Canada, which produces cheese, yoghurt and ice cream from synthetic milk protein, and Mosa Meat in the Netherlands, which works more specifically on artificial meat, offer viable alternatives to traditional animal products. Their ecological footprint seems very promising… even though it remains difficult to estimate the ramifications of mass production of such food. Similarly, we do not yet have sufficient hindsight to assess the nutritional quality of such products and their potential effects on health. Ultimately, responsible consumption has become a complicated matter that requires various strategies and increasingly complex knowledge, both at the individual and the collective level.

Many thanks to Zoé Lüthi (assistance with research and documentation)

(Translated from the original version in French)

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