29th Sep 2023


Plants get boost from new food security worries

  • Moving to a plant-based diet in the EU and the UK could replace almost all the production losses from Russia and Ukraine, according to research (Photo: Ella Olson)
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The war in Ukraine brought into sharp focus that food security is not a given. Not even in Europe.

Countries highly-dependent on imports of Ukrainian and Russian cereals, like Egypt, Turkey and Middle East, faced shortages — which Russian propaganda has used to undermine the West's sanctions policy.

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  • The global production of food is responsible for a third of all planet-heating gases and the use of animals for meat causes twice the pollution of producing plant-based foods (Photo: Humane Society)

While the shocks to the food system caused by the war mostly impacted countries outside of Europe, there is increasing concern about affordable food in the EU too.

Food prices have continued to rise, despite inflation dropping for a second consecutive month in December 2022, according to Eurostat, the EU's statistical agency.

The inflation of food prices in the EU was 18.2 percent in December, with the highest price rise seen in Hungary at nearly 50 percent, Lithuania with 33.5 percent, followed by Estonia with 30.8 percent.

"Food security effects are minor, in an international perspective. […] Availability of food in the EU is not impaired. Food-price inflation has been high, so affordability is critical for the poorest households," Rico Ihle from the Wageningen University in the Netherlands told MEPs last October.

He added that the EU was able to boost its wheat exports, contributing to smoothing the global scarcity caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine — with both countries being important exporters.

"The EU has been shown in simulations of the World Bank to be the largest global winner in terms of gains in export revenues due to the explosion of prices, but it is a net loser due to massive energy imports," Ihle explained.

These concerns over food security, which are not only exacerbated by the war but also by the increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather caused by climate change, underpin arguments for adjusting to a more plant-based diet.

Meat = Heat

The global production of food is responsible for a third of all planet-heating gases and the use of animals for meat causes twice the pollution of producing plant-based foods, a major study has found.

Animal agriculture's impact on food security and climate change are expected to grow, if plant-based diets do not take on. The UN estimates that more people will consume meat as millions will adopt middle-class, urbanised life-stlye along with its consumption habits.

Asia accounts for 40 to 45 percent of total global meat production, having overtaken Europe and North America as the dominant producers, according to a UK government report on food security. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) expects global meat production to increase by 13 percent over the next 10 years.

It remains to be seen if that trend would be impacted by growing prices and climate concerns. Europeans are tending to decrease meat consumption, but not by much, and very slowly.

About 1.5kg of meat is consumed per week by the average citizen of the EU-27, according to FAO data, which is twice the global average, Greenpeace argues.

The EU Commission expects that the EU meat per capita consumption will drop from 69.8kg in 2018 to 67 kg by 2031. Beef and pig meat consumption is projected to go down in the next decade, but poultry and sheep are expected to grow. The EAT-Lancet diet, which sets out a healthy diet for a sustainable food system, recommends that people eat no more than 300 grams of meat per week by 2050.

EU Commission data also show that around two-thirds of EU cereal production and 70 percent of oilseed production is intended for animal feed. Since 2012, there is no specific support for protein crops, and import tariffs are set at zero, the EU Commission said.

"As meat and energy intensive products such as greenhouse-grown vegetables become more expensive, consumers could look for alternatives, such as plant proteins, and seasonal, locally-available, products," said Melchior Szczepanik from the Polish Institute of International Affairs, sketching out what he called a "positive scenario".

"Smaller meat production would contribute to lower emissions and make it possible to use more cereals for food," he said, adding, however, that larger farmer's associations are now even less likely than before the war to accept pledges that would require them to change farming practices for the sake of sustainability.

Geneviève Pons, director general of Brussels-based Europe Jacques Delors think-tank warned that "we cannot look at the EU in isolation."

She said global responses on food security should include keeping trade open, and better managing the utilisation of crops, addressing the "competition between biofuel production, feeding animals and feeding people". "We need to encourage alternatives to animal proteins," Pons said.

Veggies for security

Replacing only 20 percent of meat with microbial protein could more than halve the rate of deforestation and reduce carbon emissions related to cattle farming by 2050, a study published in Nature found. It would also halve emissions from the global food system.

And moving to a plant-based diet in the EU and the UK could replace almost all the production losses from Russia and Ukraine, argued research in Nature Food.

Leiden researcher and co-author of that study, Paul Behrens, said plant-based options are "vitally important" to food security in Europe.

"A number of studies have shown that the food system on its own, even if we were going to transition the energy system, will blow climate targets. It is not surprising," Behrens told EUobserver, adding that the three main pillars of food transition are: reduction of food waste, plant-based diets, and changes in production.

"Plant-based diets have the largest opportunity," he said. "It is quite remarkable that so many things can be improved. Not just about climate change, but about viral pandemics, water pollution, air pollution, use of pesticides," Behrens added. "You can reduce your emissions over 50 percent by shifting to a plant-rich diet," he added.

Behrens argued that farmers need to be taken onboard. "It is about giving options to people so they are not trapped," he said.

EU member states, particularly Austria and France, have called for an EU-wide protein strategy by the commission. Countries primarily want to reduce their reliance on plant protein imports, as for example 90 percent of the soy needed for EU animal feed is imported.

The commission is preparing a review of its protein policy, EUobserver was told by the commission's spokespeople.

"The aim is to increase food security while reducing the impact on the environment and climate both in the EU and globally," the agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski told the European Parliament in February. The executive plans to deliver this review in the beginning of 2024.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, Alt-Protein: Eating away climate change?, which you can now read in full online.


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