Wednesday

20th Sep 2017

Opinion

EU’s attitude to plant-based products needs to change

  • 8.6 billion land animals are raised for food each year - predominantly in crowded, indoor, intensive systems, with few possibilities to move around. (Photo: wikipedia)

Veggie burgers that bleed. Meat-free chicken so realistic it has meat-eaters convinced it’s the real thing. You can even get plant-based prawns. The alternative meat market has come a long way since non-meat eaters were faced with a slab of tofu as their only option.

The number of meat-reducers, flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans within the EU’s borders is skyrocketing and driving demand for these convincing meat analogues. Europe has a 39 percent share in this buzzing market that is predicted to be worth more than €5.2 billion by 2022.

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Despite this, the EU’s attitude towards plant-based proteins is often puzzlingly negative, with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) recently ruling that plant-based milks could no longer be labelled "milk". So why is the EU so reluctant to embrace this food of the future?

The EU’s lack of support for alternatives to animal products is even more confounding when environmental, health and animal welfare issues are taken into account.

The shortcomings of high meat consumption, which is characteristic of Western diets, has become a hot topic in recent years in political and scientific circles.

Animal agriculture is a leading cause of some of the most pressing environmental crises of our time, including climate change, and is responsible for up to 17 percent of EU greenhouse gas emissions, as well as land and water overuse and degradation, and biodiversity loss.

The consumption of animal-based foods is also linked to obesity, which the World Health Organisation calls “…one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century”, as well as many of the chronic diseases that contribute to approximately 80 percent of deaths in the EU.

Animal welfare

Beyond the impacts on our health and environment, we are faced with the very serious ethical question of animal welfare.

Animals are recognised in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union as sentient beings.

Yet, throughout the EU, more than 8.6 billion land animals are raised for food each year - predominantly in crowded, indoor, intensive systems that prevent them from moving about freely and experiencing many other important natural behaviours.

The EU claims to be committed to improving public health and animal welfare, and reducing climate change.

Meat alternatives are generally low-fat and high in protein, leave a lighter footprint on the environment, and cause no animal suffering. They would, therefore, seem to be a perfect fit.

So, it is concerning that instead of supporting this mushrooming market, there are increasing efforts, led by industry, to disrupt the promotion of plant-based products.

In the recent court case brought by a German association against plant-based food company Tofutown, which marketed its products as “Veggie Cheese” or “Tofu Butter”, the ECJ confirmed the regulation restricting the naming of dairy-like products unless they originate from an animal.

The case was a clear attempt to restrict the marketing of plant-based products, and thereby protect the meat and dairy industries.

The European meat processing industry has initiated similar moves recently in the European Parliament, calling for the European Commission to restrict the naming of plant-based alternatives to meat products.

Last week, MEPs actually voted against including language that called for a reduction in meat and dairy consumption to meet the Paris climate targets in a report for EU action on sustainability.

Changing attitudes

Thankfully, the EU’s attitude to plant proteins is being challenged. It has been reported this week that meat alternatives can continue to use traditional meat product names in Germany and some MEPs are also championing plant-based products.

Speaking at Humane Society International/Europe’s recent panel debate in the EU parliament, co-hosted by cross-party MEPs, Stefan Eck said: “In the face of the environmental damage of global industrial meat production systems, shifting towards more plant-based diets in Europe and worldwide is the best we can do for a sustainable future to mankind.

Eck added: "Plant-based diets use fewer natural resources, are healthier and more respectful of animals. The future Common Agriculture Policy should take these facts into consideration.”

The panel brought together policymakers, industry experts and leaders in research and innovation, and we hope all attendees heard Mr. Eck’s message loud and clear.

Although the current system still favours animal products, times are changing rapidly and industry and governments must keep up.

Smart industry players recognise the need to be part of the change, or else they will lose out to the Silicon Valley tech start-ups that currently dominate the market. Governments would be wise to support and promote this transition.

The EU should be leading the way by incentivising plant-based proteins in the form of agricultural subsidies, increased research and innovation investment, sustainable dietary guidelines, public procurement criteria and promotional campaigns.

Until then, by continuing ‘business as usual’, the EU will be playing chicken with the health and environment of its citizens.

Alexandra Clark is sustainable food campaigner for Humane Society International/Europe. She runs the Planting Fresh Ideas campaign, which is calling on the European Commission to adopt a target to encourage more sustainable consumption patterns in the EU by replacing 30 percent of animal-based foods with plant-based foods by 2030.

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