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Biology, Sustainability

How sustainable are sustainable foods?

I remember a few years ago when a friend shared that they were going to try a vegetarian option for something until they discovered that it wasn’t healthier than the meat option. This kind of assumption is relatively common in my experience: the plant based option is assumed to be healthier and more sustainable. But this isn’t always true. Vegetarian options can be just as unhealthy as meat options. And sustainability is also up for questions. For example, avocados, a common food item in many a vegetarian diet have a significant negative environmental impact including biodiversity loss and water use.

Bunge et al (2022) looked at the overall sustainability of plant-based meat alternatives and found that it is a narrow view of sustainability that sets these products ahead. From an environmental standpoint, plant-based alternatives are better for climate change and generally use less land and less water. This all sounds good right?

The thing is, sustainability is more than just the environment. We also need to consider health aspects. If the nutrition isn’t good then people will be less healthy, diminishing their overall well-being. While there is variation the plant based alternatives fare pretty well on the health front. There are some with significantly lower nutritional value but others perform better and other than watching salt and ensuring you get enough protein many options are pretty good.

So where do plant-based alternatives fail? On the social front. First, they aren’t as well accepted. And that is a sustainability issue because to really be an alternative people have to want to eat them. Second, they’re more expensive. Wanting to eat better for the planet is great but if you can’t afford to than want doesn’t really matter.

So where does this get us? Plant-based meat alternatives are in most cases more environmentally sustainable than their meat counterparts. They are also comparable in nutrition but that can’t be assumed and you need to pay attention to the particulars. But we need to pay attention to social equity and that’s where these alternatives can fail. To be sustainable, they need to be accessible to all. They also need to be accepted.

I think times are changing and I do think that acceptance is increasing but the equity cannot be overlooked. When we talk about being more sustainable we can’t only talk about it for some. Everyone needs to have the option and right now, they don’t. As a result, that isn’t truly sustainable.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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