by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Climate change

Apr 29 2022

Weekend reading: The politics of protein

IPES-Food, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, has a new report: The politics of protein: Examining claims about livestock, fish, “alternative proteins” and sustainability 

The report contains a deep analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of these eight claims.

The report’s argument is that the focus on protein is overblown.

For decades, the perceived need for more protein has led to distractions and distortions in development programs, flawed marketing and nutritional campaigns, and calls to increase the production and trade of meat, dairy, and protein-enriched foods.

Today, the evidence clearly shows that there is no global ‘protein gap’: protein is only one of many nutrients missing in the diets of those suffering from hunger and malnutrition, and insufficiency of these diets is primarily a result of poverty and access.

The report displays data to back up its arguments in attractive and easily understood charts.  Its conclusions are clearly marked.  Example:  part of the conclusion for Claim #5: Alternative proteins are a win-win.

In conclusion, there are too many uncertainties and data gaps, and too much variation between systems, to make a definitive statement on whether ‘alternative proteins’ are more environmentally sustainable than animal source foods as a whole. Bold and categorical claims about ‘alternative proteins’ being a ‘win-win-win’ are therefore likely to be misleading…The validity of claims about ‘alternative proteins’ (and the purported benefits of these products) ultimately comes down to how foods are produced, what food systems we consider to be desirable and viable, how we weigh up trade-offs ….

Sensibly, the report makes only three recommendations:

Comment:  I think this report is well done, well written, and well presented.   But here’s where this nutritionist gets cranky: Why title it Protein?  Protein is a nutrient, not a food.  Using protein to stand for foods that contain it is an example of “nutritionism,” the reduction of  the benefits of a food to its single components.

I had to search the report for an explanation of what IPES means by protein.  As far as I can tell, its writers assume you know what it means.  But sometimes the report refers to meat and protein, implying that meat means beef, and protein means protein-containing animal foods other than beef.  At other times, the report uses protein to include beef as well as poultry, fish, dairy, and insects.   But what about vegetables and grains?  They have protein too.  Legumes are particularly good sources; grains have nourished entire civilizations.

I realize that protein—a chefs’ term—is widely understood to stand for all foods, particularly from animals, that contain protein, but that’s nutritionally incorrect because basically every naturally occurring food contains some protein (OK, lettuce doeesn’t have much).

I wish everyone would find a better term, one that calls meat meat, if that’s what’s meant.

Apr 1 2022

Weekend reading: agriculture and climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its 6th report.  

The news gets worse with each successive report.

Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world, despite efforts to reduce the risks. People and ecosystems least able to cope are being hardest hit…The world faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards over the next two decades with global warming of 1.5°C (2.7°F). Even temporarily exceeding this warming level will result in additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible. Risks for society will increase, including to infrastructure and low-lying coastal settlements.

One paragraph (C.2.2) deals with the effects of agriculture on climate change, and the strength of the associations.

  • Effective adaptation options, together with supportive public policies enhance food availability and stability and reduce climate risk for food systems while increasing their sustainability (medium confidence).
  • Effective options include cultivar improvements, agroforestry, community-based adaptation, farm and landscape diversification, and urban agriculture (high confidence).
  • Institutional feasibility, adaptation limits of crops and cost effectiveness also influence the effectiveness of the adaptation options (limited evidence, medium agreement).
  • Agroecological principles and practices, ecosystem-based management in fisheries and aquaculture, and other approaches that work with natural processes support food security, nutrition, health and well-being, livelihoods and biodiversity, sustainability and ecosystem services (high confidence).
  • These services include pest control, pollination, buffering of temperature extremes, and carbon sequestration and storage (high confidence).
  • Trade-offs and barriers associated with such approaches include costs of establishment, access to inputs and viable markets, new knowledge and management (high confidence) and their potential effectiveness varies by socioeconomic context, ecosystem zone, species combinations and institutional support (medium confidence).
  • Integrated, multi-sectoral solutions that address social inequities and differentiate responses based on climate risk and local situation will enhance food security and nutrition (high confidence).
  • Adaptation strategies which reduce food loss and waste or support balanced diets (as described in the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land) contribute to nutrition, health, biodiversity and other environmental benefits (high confidence).

Here are the documents:

The previous IPCC reports

Feb 2 2022

The ongoing debate about meat and dairy emissions

Every time I write anything about the effects of ruminants on greenhouse gas emissions, I am flooded with comments about cherry-picked data.  I’m not going to even try to sort that out, but I do find the studies interesting.

Here’s a report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP): Emissions Impossible Europe: How Europe’s Big Meat and Dairy are heating up the planet

Watch the video about it here.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Just 20 European meat and dairy companies combined produce the equivalent of more than half of the United Kingdom, France and Italy’s emissions, and exceed that of the Netherlands.
  • The same 20 companies’ total emissions rival those of fossil fuel giants…over half of Chevron’s (55%), 42% of ExxonMobil’s, 44% of Shell’s and of BP’s.
  • Their combined emissions are also equivalent to 48% of the coal consumed in the entire EU (2018)1 or more than 53 million passenger cars driven for one year.
  • Only four (Arla, Danone, FrieslandCampina and Nestlé) out of the 20 companies assessed report their total supply chain emissions…Only three (Nestlé, FrieslandCampina and ABP) have announced plans to reduce their total.

Plenty of groups object to these findings.  You can read about that here.

Addition:

If you haven’t seen it, take a look at this 15-minute video on Big Ag lobbying from the New York Times.

Jan 26 2022

The dietary dilemma: food adequacy vs. planetary health

A recent report in Nature caught my eye:

It begins with the problem:

More than 2 billion people are overweight or obese, mostly in the Western world. At the same time, 811 million people are not getting enough calories or nutrition, mostly in low- and middle-income nations. Unhealthy diets contributed to more deaths globally in 2017 than any other factor, including smoking2As the world’s population continues to rise and more people start to eat like Westerners do, the production of meat, dairy and eggs will need to rise by about 44% by 2050, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

That poses an environmental problem alongside the health concerns. Our current industrialized food system already emits about one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. It also accounts for 70% of freshwater use and 40% of land coverage, and relies on fertilizers that disrupt the cycling of nitrogen and phosphorus and are responsible for much of the pollution in rivers and coasts3.

It talks about dietary recommendations for human and planetary health:

And it discusses the practicalities of achieving that kind of diet.

In fact, for the average person to eat the diet in 2011 — the most recent data set available on food prices — would have cost a global average of $2.84 per day, about 1.6 times higher on average than the cost of a basic nutritious meal12.

Despite the lack of more recent data, the ideas here demand consideration.  Nature readers don’t get to see things like this too often and these issues deserve attention and solutions.

Jan 10 2022

Industry-funded study of the week: methane-reducing supplements for cows

Thanks to Lynn Ripley for this gem.

Who knew that herbal dietary supplements are now marketed for cows, with claims that they improve milk quality and yield and reduce methane emissions at the same time?  Not me, for sure.

The producer of this supplement says feeding a dairy cow one gram a day will produce these benefits. That’s not much for a 1500-2000 pound dairy cow, even feeding the gram a day for at least four weeks (which is what the manufacturer says you have to do).

This, to say the least, is hard to believe.

As evidence, the manufacturer, Agolin Ruminant, cites three studies of its supplement.   Want to take a guess as to who funded all three of them?  Bingo!  Agolin Ruminant.

My first question: what is in Agolin Ruminant that is so powerful that only one gram a day will produce measurable benefits?

This question is not easy to answer.

The manufacturer’s statement of product information says only:

AGOLIN RUMINANT L is a carefully balanced combination of essential oil compounds in their natural / nature-identical form. All active substances are of high purity and are accepted for use under current European animal feed and human food legislation.

In the meta-analysis summarized below, the authors say:

The main active compounds of this product are food grade and chemically-defined plant extracts including coriander (Coriandrum sativum) seed oil (up to 10%), eugenol (up to 7%), geranyl acetate (up to 7%) and geraniol (up to 6%) along with some preservatives such as fumaric acid.

Those account for 30% of what’s in the product.  The other 70%?  A mystery.

This supplement is a feed additive.  Animal feed products do not require the level of ingredient disclosure required for dietary supplements.  The manufacturer says all ingredients are either FDA-approved or Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).  All are plant extracts (available from cloves or geraniums, for example).   Great.  I’d like to know what they are.

The manufacturer points to an endorsement from the Carbon Trust for the value of this product for reducing methane emissions.

This opinion is based on academic references, published scientific papers and field reports and joins the conclusions of the independent meta analyses from A. Belanche et al.

Oh dear.  The Carbon Trust did not do its homework.  The article by Belanche et al, is anything but independent.

Here are the key studies attesting to the purported benefits of this supplement for cows, starting with Belanche et al.

I.  A Meta-analysis Describing the Effects of the Essential oils Blend Agolin Ruminant on Performance, Rumen Fermentation and Methane Emissions in Dairy Cows. Alejandro Belanche, Charles J. Newbold, Diego P. Morgavi, Alex Bach, Beatrice Zweifel and David R. Yáñez-Ruiz.  Animals 2020, 10, 620; doi:10.3390/ani10040620

Conclusion: This meta-analysis combining 23 experimental and farm studies across 10 different countries indicated that supplementation of lactating dairy cows with the essential oils blend Agolin Ruminant® (at 1g/d per cow) exerted positive effects on milk production whereas it decreased enteric methane emissions in comparison to un-supplemented cows. These effects mostly appeared after an adaptation period of approximately 4 weeks of treatment and consisted in an increase in fat and protein corrected milk suggesting an improved feed utilization.

Funding: This research received no external funding.

Acknowledgments: This study was supported by Agolin SA (Bière, Switzerland).

Conflicts of Interest: Author B.Z. was employed by the company Agolin SA but had no role in the design, execution, interpretation, or writing of the meta-analysis. The remaining authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Comment:  Really?  Even though the authors cite support by Agolin SA?

II.  The Impact of Essential Oil Feed Supplementation on Enteric Gas Emissions and Production Parameters from Dairy Cattle Angelica V. Carrazco, Carlyn B. Peterson, Yongjing Zhao, Yuee Pan , John J. McGlone, Edward J. DePeters and Frank M. Mitloehner.  Sustainability 2020, 12, 10347; doi:10.3390/su122410347

Conclusion: Cows supplemented with Agolin versus the control had less methane intensity (g/period/kg
energy-corrected milk (ECM); p = 0.025).

Funding: This study was funded by Agolin (Agolin SA, Bière, Switzerland) and by Feedworks USA Ltd. (Ohio, USA).

Conflicts of Interest: The sponsor played no role in the execution and interpretation of the data and preparation of the present manuscript. The authors declare no conflict of interest.

III.  Evaluation of Agolin®, an Essential Oil Blend, as a Feed Additive for High Producing Cows.  Peter Williams1, John Clark, Kelly Bean  Open Journal of Animal Sciences, 11, 231-237. https://doi.org/10.4236/ojas.2021.112018

Conclusion: The trial showed that Agolin assisted in improving production parameters of economic importance to dairy producers.

Conflict of Interest: Mr. John Clark and Mr. Peter Williams market Agolin in the United States of America. Both were involved in the design but not the analysis of data or interpretation of results.

Comment

These are industry-funded supplement studies designed to sell a supplement of dubious benefit (my interpretation) to dairy producers to convince the public that they are doing all they can to reduce methane emissions.

The supplement doesn’t cost much per dose, but there are lots of dairy cows that have to be given the supplement for at least four weeks.

Without even getting into the details of the measurement difficulties or the overall science, two things are particularly troubling:

  • The lack of transparency about ingredients
  • The lack of a convincing mechanism of action

Call me skeptical.  I don’t see this supplement as a solution to the methane emission problem caused by ruminants.

Nov 19 2021

Weekend reading: in defense of eating beef

Nicolette Hahn Niman.  Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat (revized and expanded second edition). Chelsea Green, 2021. 

The Defending Beef cover

This is an updated edition of Hahn Niman’s 2014 book, which I wrote about in October that year.  Then, it was titled Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production.

I did a blurb for the book when it first came out and it still holds for this new edition:

Issues related to the long-term health effects of red meat, saturated fat, sugar, and grains are complex and I see the jury as still out on many of them.  While waiting for the science to be resolved, Hahn Niman’s book is well worth reading for its forceful defense of the role of ruminant animals in sustainable food systems.

In my 2014 post, I said:

The subtitle says it all: “The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher.”

Really?

Really.  She’s not kidding.

As [my blurb] might suggest, I have a more cautious interpretation of the science she summarizes, but there are plenty of reasons why eating meat can help improve human nutrition, especially when the animals are raised as humanely and sustainably as possible, which the Nimans most definitely do on their beautiful Bolinas ranch. [Photos are here]

Vegetarians: does she convince you?

Let the debates begin.

Well, 7 years later the new edition focuses much more on arguments about the effects of beef production on climate change and whether plant-based meat alternatives are worth the trouble.

The big news:  Hahn Niman is no longer a vegetarian.

I may once have believed that if I followed a vegetarian diet, nothing would have to die for my meals.  I now see how wrong I was…My primary mission these past two decades has been helping, in whatever ways I can, build a more environmentally sound, nourishing and humane food system.  We have a long way to go.  I don’t urge people to eat meat.  But I certainly don’t urge refraining from it, either.  I encourage omnivorous eaters to seek well-raised meat.  Abandoning meat will not positively affect the food system and may diminish one’s health.  The greatest consumer impact will come from people who eat meat actually buying it from good sources. (p.244)

I am with her on all of that.

That meat has nutritional and ecological benefits is beyond dispute.  This books lays out her point of view about the reasons for these benefits in an especially thoughtful way that carefully considers the counter-arguments.

Whether you agree with her views or not, this is the book to read about these issues.

Oct 15 2021

Weekend reading: USDA’s action plans for climate change

Agriculture and climate change interact in two ways: (a) agriculture contributes to climate change, and  (b) climate change affects agriculture.

In May, USDA published its plan to address (a): “Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Strategy: 90-Day Progress Report.”

Secretary Vilsack explains:

We will look across climate science and research, forest health, outreach and education, existing programs, and new and emerging markets to advance climate-smart agriculture and forestry..Equity and justice will play a guiding role in our work…We will also prioritize actions that provide tangible, near-term benefts for low-income communities and communities of color.   I am confdent that in partnership with our country’s agriculture and forestry stakeholders, we can develop a strategy that is a win-win for our producers in building climate resilience, mitigating emissions, and conserving our natural resources.

Now the USDA has just issued its plan to address (b), formitigating the effects of climate change on agriculture.

USDA Secretary Vilsack explains:

As the “People’s Department,” USDA is preparing to help communities across the United States, both rural and urban, plan for and build resilience to the impacts of climate change.

People’s Department?  If only.

USDA’s strategy to help farmers deal with climate change will involve:

  • Investing in soil and forest health
  • Improving communication and accessibility on climate-smart strategies
  • Making climate data more broadly available
  • Increasing research
  • Leveraging the USDA Climate Hubs, USDA’s regional networks for helping farmers adapt to climate change

These reports are densely written and require much reading between the lines to figure out what USDA is really going to do and whether its actions have any hope of succeeding.

Let’s hope they do.

Sep 15 2021

Midweek reading: The Meat Atlas

Take a look at this.

The authors write:

It is clear that many (especially young) people no longer want to accept the profit-driven damage caused by the meat industry and are increasingly interested in and committed to climate, sustainability, animal welfare and food sovereignty causes. We consider this an encouraging step for our future and want to use this Atlas to strengthen their commitment with information.

This Atlas is intended to support all those who seek climate justice and food sovereignty, and who want to protect nature. Revealing new data and facts, and providing links between various key issues, it is a crucial contribution to the work done by many to shed light on the problems arising from industrial meat production.

They aren’t kidding about data, facts, and issues.  The graphics alone are worth viewing.  Three examples.

Pesticide applications, global:

Diseases transmitted by animals to humans: A chronological list

Trends and investment in plant-based meat alternatives

And here’s what The Guardian highlights: meat and dairy firms emit more greenhouse gases than Germany, Britain, or France.