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Nutrition: Meat made from peas and milk from oats?

Our eating habits have a massive effect on the environment and the climate. This isn’t just a topic that the LIFE Institute is focusing on – it’s also a matter for food retailers and meat producers. At our most recent Zukunftskonferenz, Christoph Weigl from meat company Marcher Fleischwerke and Tanja Dietrich-Hübner from supermarket chain Billa spoke about meat alternatives and climate protection.

Ernährung: gedeckter Tisch mit buntem Gemüse

Nutrition: Small changes in behavior - big impact: the carbon footprint of plant-based foods is often many times lower than that of animal-based foods. Photo: Unsplash/Victoria Shes

Depending on how you calculate it, the food we eat accounts for between a quarter and a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “Animal-based products have a particularly large carbon footprint,” explains Benjamin De Groeve of the LIFE Institute. Conventionally reared beef has one of the biggest, averaging 36.4kg of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) per 1,000 kilocalories (kcal)*. On this metric, pork (5.2kg CO2e) and poultry (5.3kg CO2e) perform well, comparatively speaking. “But take a look at plant-based products and you see the true potential that could be unlocked by changing our eating habits,” De Groeve adds. By way of comparison: tofu generates 1.2kg of CO2e, wheat-based alternatives 0.6kg and pea-based substitutes 0.3kg. And when it comes to milk and its plant-based replacements, the difference is glaring. With one exception: coconut milk.

Meat production

Marcher’s carbon balance paints a clear picture of the factors that cause high emissions in meat production. Based in Villach, the meat processing company began analysing the carbon footprint of its operations and products in 2021: “We compiled a greenhouse gas balance for our entire production chain – from rearing and feeding the animals, to transportation to the abattoir and between different facilities, as well as emissions at the various sites including waste and wastewater management, all the way through to how the employees commute to work,” Christoph Weigl, Marcher’s Sustainability Manager, reports. The results: “95% of the emissions attributed to Marcher Fleischwerke come from raising cows and pigs – something we have no influence over at all. A large proportion of emissions are also accounted for by packaging and labelling, but the actual production plays a minor role in comparison.” What’s more, Marcher’s meat substitutes underline the huge differences between meat and plant-based meat analogues – the GHG emissions from production of a beef burger patty are about six times higher than for an alternative pea-based product. And a Marcher-developed upcycling recipe that uses brewery by-products performs even better.

Plant-based products

“We’re focused on expanding our plant-based range and on higher-quality animal products,” explains Tanja Dietrich-Hübner, who has been Head of Sustainability at Billa for the past 13 years. “Eating is very closely tied in with enjoyment, and that’s just as true for plant-based foods,” she adds. “Our job is to give the customers some guidance and design the product range so that it’s good for the climate and fit for the future in the long run.” A study carried out on behalf of organic label Ja natürlich and Greenpeace provided some data on this topic. Compared with the emissions caused by the current average diet, switching to a balanced, low-meat diet cuts HG emissions by 28%, while going vegetarian can cut emissions by up to 47%, and the potential emissions savings from a vegan diet are 70%.
“This means people can help to reduce emissions significantly simply by choosing a more balanced diet. If you can cut your meat consumption and choose organic options for part of your food intake, then that really does have an effect.”

Conclusions: The carbon footprints of most animal-based products are substantially larger than they are for plant-based alternatives, so even small changes in behaviour can make a difference. Which would make this an effective weapon in the fight against climate change.

*CO2e per 1,000 kcal includes carbon dioxide as well as other greenhouse gases. It shows how many kilogrammes of GHGs are emitted in order to achieve a nutritional value of 1,000 kilocalories for a given product. IN FOCUS Meat CO2e per 1,000 kcal:* • Beef from meat production: 36.4kg • Prawns: 26.1kg • Lamb: 12.5kg • Meat from dairy cattle: 12.2kg • Poultry: 5.3kg • Pork: 5.2kg Plant-based alternatives CO2e per 1,000 kcal:* • Tofu: 1.2kg • Pea-based: 0.3kg • Wheat-based substitute: 0.6kg Source: Ourworldindata
The figures stated in this article are averages, and they can vary significantly depending on the type of production, as well as the ingredients used in meat analogues.



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