To leave or not to leave the beef? That is the question. A study reveals the environmental and consumer health benefits of replacing it with chicken or plant protein.
“It is that a lunch without meat is not lunch, that does not keep,” said a man in the market place, to which his companions nodded. This small scene seems to represent the idiosyncrasy, that when something is very delayed, he says it is “longer than a week without meat.”
But what if we ate less beef?
This study compares the environmental and human health impacts of the consumption of the two vegetable proteins (red beans and lentils) and the two animal proteins (beef and chicken) most consumed in the country.
An environmental problem
The first of the items analyzed in this research is the water footprint. This is an indicator that measures the amount of water consumed and contaminated in the production of a product or service. In this case it was done for all four types of food. It is calculated in liters of water per person per year.
Although the consumption of beef is less than that of chicken, it is striking that the water footprint of the meat is greater than that of chicken.
The second item studied was the carbon footprint, which measures greenhouse gas emissions in the production of these foods. It is calculated in kilogram of carbon dioxide for each kilogram of product consumed.
The results of the research show that the consumption of the two animal proteins studied has more negative impacts on the environment. “Eating lentils and beans is much better on an environmental level. The impact of these legumes is considerably lower and is well below the carbon footprint and water footprint compared to these two animal products ”, says Laura Blanco, who did her master’s degree at Harvard University and does a doctorate at the University of Waterloo (Canada), on this subject.
The researcher highlights negative impacts associated with livestock. First, carbon sinks are removed in important areas such as the Amazon; second, the growth of livestock populations exponentially increases the emissions of gases with a high potential to contribute to global warming (such as methane, from faeces). Third, the loss of forests and jungles is a threat to Colombian biodiversity.
Armed conflict and agribusiness
Laura Blanco also adds that in recent years deforestation due to illegal logging has grown due to scant state territorial control after the demobilization and departure of armed groups from their territories.
“In times of conflict, many areas of the country were inaccessible, so they were protected to a certain extent at the environmental level. With the departure of certain armed actors and the absence of the State in those regions, the appropriation of land and deforestation has increased ”. This fact, for the expert, generates both environmental and social conflicts.
On the other hand, she warns Blanco that, although meat consumption in the country has decreased during the pandemic, now the livestock business is exporting to Asia, which does not generate many expectations of relief for the environment.
Agribusiness has several global chains, that means that, if today a person wants to have bananas for breakfast every day, he gets it, even if the banana is tropical; or the same with palm oil, which is an input that travels all over the world. The whole design of the way we feed ourselves right now is unsustainable.
Similarly, this study analyzed the impacts of meat and chicken consumption on human health. On the one hand, she highlights that meat provides macro and micronutrients, vitamins and minerals. This is the case of vitamin B12, which is difficult to find in other types of food.
In the general population, nutritional information is not so positive either adults are overweight, which may represent a risk factor for health. “A person who only eats rice and potatoes may be obese, but with a deficiency of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals,” explains Blanco.
The researchers highlight some negative factors of eating meat. “Several studies have shown that if you eat a lot of beef and animal products, you are more likely to get cardiovascular problems.”
The economy of consumption
From an economic point of view, a diet with less meat is cheaper. The price of beans and lentils per gram of protein is lower. In a chain store, a kilo of beans or lentils can range between $ 5,000 and $ 7,000, while a pound of meat or chicken can cost between $12,000 and $26,000, depending on the cut or type of prey.
From the information in the study, common sense would say that it is logical to switch to a diet based on plant protein, but the situation is more complex. The researchers state that the diet of Colombians depends on the availability of food, and that, in the case of the legumes studied, it is not as high as expected.
“There is much more availability of rice, potatoes and cassava because it is produced in the country. At the level of legumes, there is not so much, ”says researcher Blanco. “Lentils, for example, are imported from Canada, the United States and Chile. They are not produced in Colombia. We do produce beans and peas, but not to meet the needs of the Colombian population,”she adds.
Towards a change in diet
Research results suggest that switching to a diet with less animal protein brings benefits for health and the environment.
The objective, initially, would be to reduce the consumption of meat. It is not about trying to get everyone to become vegan, but the information analyzed does tell us that it is better to eat less meat. If we already eat beans and lentils, what if we stop eating meat once or twice a week?
But to achieve good nutrition it is not enough to reduce the consumption of meat. It should be accompanied with other types of food that provide the micronutrients that the body needs. By removing the meat from the plate without replacing it with anything, there would be a major micronutrient deficiency. This means that you have to add a lot of vegetables and fruits to the plate.
In international documents it is recommended to consume 0.8 grams of protein per day for each kilogram of weight, while the ICBF document or the Ministry of Health guidelines recommend 1.1 grams per kilogram. This difference for a person who weighs 70 kilos, represents 7.56 kilos more of meat per year than what is recommended in other countries.
You have to think about what types of crops or what type of agricultural practices are supported by public policies and how we can change that to promote the production of other types of plant-based foods.