Cereal Foods World, Vol. 64, No. 5
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Sustainability Impacts of Pulses in Meat-Analogue Food Products
C.W. Brabender Instruments Inc., South Hackensack, NJ, U.S.A.
© 2019 AACC International, Inc.
The plant-based food movement has been gaining traction rapidly among consumers, companies, and investors. The combination of this movement and the growing popularity of pulses is driving food companies to create meat-analogue products that incorporate pulses as the main replacement for meat protein. Although the popularity of the plant-based food movement is being driven by a multitude of factors, one of the primary drivers is the consumer appeal of environmentally sustainable diets, which can be coupled with sustainability messages around pulses. Sustainability messages resonate with consumers, who often do not have a clear understanding of exactly how environmentally sustainable pulse-based meat alternatives are compared with their meat-based counterparts. Looking at sustainability impacts across the food supply chain, switching from meat-based to pulse-based products drastically reduces land and water use requirements and the carbon footprint of the food production process. Substituting even one plant-based meal for a meat-based meal begins to have an environmental impact. As this impact grows, pulse-based meat-analogue products can play a major part in reducing carbon emissions and slowing global warming and can help sustain a healthier planet for future generations.
As awareness of climate change and its effects increases, and policy debates around it continue, one of the key aspects that routinely receives attention is the global food system. Every year, the average household emits 8.1 t of CO2 related to food consumption (9). Nearly 84% of these carbon emissions is generated by food production, whether it be at the farm or the process facility. An additional 11% of carbon emissions is generated by the transportation of food. To put these numbers into perspective, an average passenger car emits 4.6 t of CO2/year (8). The large carbon footprint generated by the food supply system, how we can reduce its size, and, consequently, how we can eat more sustainably has been a focus in a variety of food trends. Messages concerning environmentally sustainable food systems and consumption have begun to resonate with many consumers. Food companies are responding to increased consumer demand for sustainability by expanding workplace sustainability initiatives, sourcing ingredients from more sustainable supply systems, and, at times, even choosing to make sustainability a key selling point of specific products.
One sector of the food supply system that has received criticism for having poor environmental sustainability is meat. Meat production involves large amounts of land use, water use, and CO2 generation compared with other food products. Some consumers who are aware of the poor sustainability of meat production have begun switching to vegan or vegetarian diets. In step with this trend, there is also increasing consumer interest in flexitarian diets, which incorporate more plant-based foods with occasional meat products (1). The plant-based meat-analogue options available on the market have primarily been soy- and wheat-based products. Pulses offer new opportunities in the development of these products and have undergone considerable growth in consumer popularity. The growing popularity of pulses was aided by the United Nations General Assembly designation of 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. Compared with meat, pulses have excellent environmental sustainability properties on the farm and can provide unique food opportunities for processors and consumers concerning sustainability messaging.
Perhaps the greatest positive impact of pulses on the environmental sustainability of the global food system is observed when pulse production is compared with meat production. For example, meat production currently dominates land use in the contiguous United States. More than one-third of the land, or 654 million acres, in the contiguous 48 states is used as pasture land, with the majority of this land being used to feed cattle (Fig. 1) (5). In the United States, pasture land is mainly located in states west of the Mississippi River, and a quarter of this land is owned by the federal government and made available for livestock grazing for a fee. An additional 127 million acres of land is used to grow food for livestock. This is a tremendous amount of land devoted to livestock, totaling about 41% of land use in the contiguous United States. By comparison, only 77 million acres of land is used to grow crops for human consumption (Fig. 1), meaning the United States uses more than 1.5 times more land to feed livestock than it uses to feed people (5). This land use allocation poses a sustainability problem for the future. As the human population continues to grow and demand more food, specifically more meat, the amount of land dedicated to meat production will have to grow with it. This will become increasingly more difficult to sustain as the acreage required expands.
In contrast, land use required for pulse production is significantly less, in part because the demand is much less than for meat. However, from an efficiency standpoint, far less land is required to grow pulse crops. A single full-grown cow, which will produce approximately 610 lb of beef, requires 10–12 acres of pasture land/year (6). The same amount of land could be used to grow between 15,000 and 36,000 lb of dry field peas, depending on variety and efficiency (2), and produce significantly more usable pounds of food compared with food products from a single cow. Even if only the protein is extracted from peas to make meat-analogue burgers, pulses can still be used to create many more plant-based burgers compared with meat burgers and, therefore, is a much more sustainable food product when pulses are used as a meat alternative.
If the demand for pulse-based meat alternatives continues to grow, along with the population, the need for land on which to grow these crops will also increase. The first areas in which land may become available are those currently used to raise livestock, although pulses can grow in other areas as well. Planting pulses on fallow land, or uncultivated land used to help restore the nutrient content of soil for other crops, is another possibility, because pulses have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil and restore nutrients for other crops. About 52 million acres of land in the United States is left fallow every year (5). If even half of it were used to grow pulses, it would be possible to produce more pounds of pulses than pounds of beef per year in the United States. This is one example of how switching to a pulse-based diet quickly becomes immensely more sustainable than a meat-based diet. If everyone in the United States were to switch to pulse-based alternatives to beef, it would be possible to use land that is already being used for crop rotations to replace all of the land being used for beef production. This would free up the nearly 40% of the land in the United States that is being used for meat production for other uses.
Reducing land use by switching from meat- to pulse-based diets would lead to a variety of other environmental sustainability impacts. One change associated with switching to plant-based diets is a significant reduction in required water use. Nearly 1,800 gal of water is required to produce 1 lb of beef (4). In comparison, approximately 485 gal of water is required to produce 1 lb of pulses (7). If the water footprint numbers are adjusted for protein, beef requires 29.5 gal of water for every 1 g of protein, whereas pulses require 5 gal of water for every 1 g of protein. For comparison, cereal crops, on average, require 5.5 gal of water for every 1 g of protein (4). The water footprint for livestock is much greater than for pulse crops due to the diets cows require and because cows must consume large quantities of plants. The water needed to grow feed for cows, as well as what is required for other activities on the farm, is then magnified. This magnified water effect is reversed when consumers switch to pulse-based alternatives. By reducing the water footprint from 29.5 to 5 gal of water/g of protein, converting a single hamburger with about 20 g of protein from beef to pulses would reduce water consumption by approximately 490 gal, which is around the same amount of water used in 28 showers, excluding the impact from other ingredients that may be incorporated in each burger. Multiplying this effect across millions of meals, the impact on the water footprint would be tremendous and, potentially, could produce a much greater impact than any other household water-saving activity. It might even be able to bring certain areas with large numbers of cattle farms, such as California, out of multiyear water shortages.
The reductions in required land and water use associated with producing pulse-based meat analogues also are accompanied by a large reduction in the carbon footprint. On a worldwide scale, between 14 and 18% of carbon emissions are produced by livestock (3). Breaking this down to a smaller scale, using the numbers mentioned previously and beef as an example, on average, for every 1 g of protein produced from beef, 500 g of CO2 is generated. In contrast, for every 1 g of protein produced from pulses approximately 8 g of CO2 is generated (7). Carbon emissions for various animal and plant products are shown in Figure 2. The carbon footprint for each is created by a mix of processing and transportation but, again, is magnified by the many plants cows must eat, along with the excretion of CO2 through breathing and intestinal activity. To put this into perspective, using the same example of a burger containing 20 g of protein as was used for water, switching one burger from beef to a pulse-based meat analogue would reduce CO2 emissions by 9.84 kg—this is the same amount of CO2 generated by driving approximately 24 miles in an average car (8). Pulse-based meat alternatives offer a solution to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the food system, contributing to solving the current climate change issues and providing a more sustainable environment for future generations.
Efforts to create an environmentally sustainable food system are increasingly appealing to consumers and are growing in popularity. The food supply chain plays a critical role in creating a sustainable living environment. By reducing the amount of land used, natural environments can be left alone and allowed to go through natural cycles of growth, resulting in fewer carbon emissions and cleaner air and water. Reducing water usage leads to less water treatment and fewer water-shortages in critical areas. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions can help halt the ever-marching progress of climate change. Shifting from consumption of meat-based products, primarily beef, to pulse-based meat-analogue products, such as meat-analogue burgers, can have a positive impact on land and water use and production of greenhouse gases. As more meat-analogue products become available, particularly those incorporating pulse ingredients, and consumers have more options, it will become easier to eat more sustainably. As the human population continues to grow, eating sustainably will be critical to reducing food shortages and being able to feed everyone adequate, nutritious meals around the world.
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