Sustainable Protein : Healthy People & Planet | Event Summary & Key Learning

Blinc’s recent Sustainable Protein event, focused on how we ensure Healthy People along with a Healthy Planet, laid out the challenges in this complex area. What is clear is that we don’t have all the answers. It will be important as we work on these to consider the unintended consequences of diets we recommend or of the new regulations and policies put in place, without fully understanding the available research or what still needs to be discovered. The margarine-butter story is just one of these.

Closer to home, a climate emergency was declared in Canterbury on 16 May, drawing attention to the work already being done and led by the region to combat the climate crisis and to acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. Food production and consumption is one piece of this complex challenge. Determining a healthy and sustainable way to feed a global population of 10 billion people in 2050 has sparked international debate and resulted in the release of the EAT-Lancet Commission report, which provided guidelines for a Planetary Health Diet but when we match the science against these recommendations, is this the answer for healthy people.  Alternative facts shared by Dr Caryn Zinn suggest a different perspective. Our challenge as we navigate this significant time – do your homework first.

1 in 10 New Zealanders are going “(mostly) meat free” according to the Better Futures Report 2019, but many westerners are still eating more meat than is nutritionally required. In New Zealand, we eat way more than is required and are one of the highest meat consuming populations globally. We also have seen beef consumption in developing countries increase from 4.2kg per capita to 7.1kg in the last 50 years as more consumers have entered the middle class. By 2030, 65% of the world’s population is projected to enter the middle class and to further increase the demand for meat. A real challenge for our planet to accommodate this.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we export 95% of the food we produce – as we look ahead to 2050, we have to ask the question what our role is and might be in the production of sustainable protein for healthy people and a healthy planet?

Beyond the burger

Meatless meat is predicted to become a 35 billion USD market. Impossible Burger turned heads when it recently raised 300 million USD, increasing its value to 2 billion USD. This followed Beyond Meat’s IPO, which has been labelled the most successful of 2019 so far. Are alternative protein and cellular meat the future of food? Is this the answer to reducing the footprint of agriculture in New Zealand, which accounts for 49% of all greenhouse gas emissions?

Caryn Zinn, dietician, author of Eat the Fat, researcher and lecturer at AUT, cautioned that many alternative protein food products require a heavy amount of processing, which means high use of energy and water for production, as well as additives to maintain the structure and preserve the flavours of the food. Processed food is still processed food, so if you are looking to eat a nutritious diet, they are not the silver bullet to good health. She also noted that if we rush to remove all of the animals from our farming systems and start to eat plant-based, we may create other, unexpected issues as a result. Farming systems are complex and must be viewed holistically. What we pull in one direction may cause a push in another.

Caryn stressed how important it is for those who do choose to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet to supplement with DHA and vitamin B12, both of which cannot be produced in sufficient amounts by the human body. She highlighted that the quality of food matters and consumers should heed caution when reviewing studies about the health implications of eating meat.

Observational studies that compare vegan diets versus meat-eating diets typically do not compare like for like, i.e. vegans are typically more health conscious than the average consumer, so when comparing a vegan with a consumer of a standard diet, the vegan diet of course will always come out on top. However, when comparing like for like, i.e. a healthy consumer of meat versus a healthy consumer of a vegan diet, there is no difference in long term health.

Suzy Amis Cameron, actor, environmental activist, author and mum of five, was inspired to transition to a vegan diet after watching “Forks Over Knives.” Suzy and her husband, award-winning film director James Cameron, were facing a history of family disease and looking for a natural way of prevention instead of taking prescription drugs. Her journey led her to write OMD, One Meal a Day for the Planet, where she encourages readers to choose to eat just one, plant-based meal per day for the environment – improved health, reduced waist line, increased energy and a better sex life are all fringe benefits. By choosing to eat one plant-based meal per day, Suzy claims that annually you will save 736,895 litres of water and the carbon equivalent of 4,952km driven in your car.

In his introduction, MC Rod Oram noted that Auckland residents have a carbon footprint of 7 tonnes emissions per person per annum and the city is looking to reduce that figure to 3 tonnes per person. (Copenhagen residents have an annual carbon footprint today of 2 tonnes per person.) Eating one plant-based meal does not take much effort and is a great way to reduce your personal carbon footprint. It is important to note that consumers must consider all aspects of their lifestyle when looking to reduce their carbon footprint as this issue goes well beyond the burger.

New ways of thinking necessary for the future of food in Aotearoa

Her Excellency, The Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy GNZM, QSO, Governor-General of New Zealand, joined us for the event and shared with the audience that a shift in thinking of consumption norms is necessary as we look to the future to have heathy people and a healthy planet. A proud vegan, she said New Zealand is “ideally placed to show leadership in production in sustainable proteins and championing new kinds of protein.” In addition to the rise of plant-based products, we are also seeing an increase in the rise of meat products, such as sausages, that are meat based but blended with vegetables.  A good way to consider enhancing diets – but make sure you check the ingredients . . .  What the future of food in New Zealand will look like is uncertain, but we will see innovation and are likely to see a rise in the diversity of crops we produce and add value to enable both plant and meat protein production.

Maury Leyland Penno is a Director and investor in a number of primary sector start-up businesses in areas including plant protein, nutrition and hops. Maury shared that when looking at their own farm, she and her husband considered not only what made sense economically, but also what crops were best suited for the land and environment. The future of plant protein in New Zealand is exciting and Maury highlighted several crops to investigate and explore, including; hops, quinoa, saffron and hemp.  But what else could we be growing?

Our food producers need sound guidance on what crops are best suited for their land and infrastructure is needed to support the transition. Maury noted the importance of utilising technologies that exist today, whilst needing investment for improvement. New Zealand is known for the safety, quality and traceability of its food – we have an opportunity to build on this image of authenticity and connection to the grower through plant protein, as well as meat production.

Rod Oram noted that land-use change and diversity of crops is important for economic, social and environmental resilience. Collaboration and innovation are needed to determine what’s next and what will continue to provide prosperity for future generations. What that future will look like is uncertain, however, all consumers can influence that future by voting with their wallet each time their make a purchase. Our food producers and growers will innovate and meet consumer demand but need support through the transition to what’s next for the future of farming in Aotearoa.

Source: Blinc Innovation

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