The Protein Puzzle: The Consumption and Production of Meat, Dairy and Fish in the European Union
European Journal of Nutrition & Food Safety,
Meat, dairy, eggs and fish are important components of the European diet
These animal products are not only important in terms of taste and tradition; they also provide essential nutrients such as proteins, iron, calcium and vitamins. Fish also provides essential fatty acids and vitamin D. Furthermore, livestock production and fisheries are important economic sectors for Europe’s rural areas.
However, livestock production and fisheries have large environmental effects, both within and outside Europe
From a global perspective, impacts on terrestrial and marine biodiversity and emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and various forms of reactive nitrogen are most dominant. The large areas of land needed for grassland and feed production are an important cause of biodiversity loss. In the EU, about two thirds of the total agricultural area is used for livestock production. Around 75% of the protein-rich feed is imported, mainly from Brazil and Argentina where large areas of land are needed for its production.
Conversion of plant energy and proteins into edible animal products is a generally inefficient use of resource
These resources include land, water, fertilisers and fossil energy, among other things. This can be illustrated by the fact that, for each EU citizen, every day almost 3 kilograms of feed is consumed by EU livestock, 0.8 kilogram of which in cereals and 0.8 kilogram in grass (dry matter). This feed is converted into 0.1 kilograms of meat and 0.8 kilograms of milk, being the average EU consumption.
Livestock production is a source of greenhouse gas emissions and certain forms of reactive nitrogen
Around 10% of EU greenhouse gas emissions are caused by livestock production. Together, the beef and dairy sectors are responsible for two thirds of these emissions. A large quantity of nitrogen fertiliser is needed, each year, to sustain Europe’s high production levels of grass, cereals and other crops. More than 80% of this nitrogen input is lost, leading to various environmental problems, including the loss of terrestrial biodiversity and algae blooms in coastal waters. There are large differences in greenhouse gas and nitrogen emissions between the various animal products and production practices.
Animal husbandry is associated with several ethical issues
These issues, among other things, are related to limited space, floor type and concentrated feeds, and to the breeds being used. Farm animals, especially when kept in conventional types of housing, experience various forms of discomfort. Animal diseases diminish not only animal well-being, but some animal diseases and the widespread use of antibiotics also cause human health risks. However, improving animal welfare generally leads to higher feed requirements and higher emission levels, thus implying a trade-off between animal welfare and environmental issues.
Many marine fish populations are overexploited. despite new fishing grounds, EU catches are declining rapidly
Catches in the main EU fishing areas have declined by a third since the early 1990s, partly because of EU regulation to prevent overfishing. EU aquaculture is growing, but at a much slower rate than in other regions. Worldwide, 40% of fish production comes from aquaculture, compared with about 20% in Europe. The EU, therefore, relies heavily on imports to meet its demand for fish.
Average EU consumption of animal protein per capita is about twice the global average
Meat consumption in Europe is twice the world average; for dairy produce it is even three times higher. Average EU consumption of meat, dairy and fish has increased strongly over the last 50 years. The total per-capita protein consumption (including vegetable sources) is about 70% higher than recommended. This, in itself, probably would have no adverse effects on human health, if not for the associated intake of saturated fatty acids, which lead to increased risks of cardiovascular diseases. The average intake of saturated fatty acids is about 40% higher than recommended. Thus, a reduction in the consumption of livestock products, notably in high-fat products, would reduce the European disease burden.
Global demand for animal products is expected to increase significantly, in the coming decades, as a result of a growing global population and increasing prosperity
As a consequence, cropland and grassland areas are expected to expand by 10% to 20% over the coming decades, leading to significant losses of terrestrial biodiversity, especially in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and South America. Moreover, greenhouse gas and nitrogen emissions related to agricultural production also are expected to increase. Globally, already around 30% of the total human-induced biodiversity loss is related to livestock production. Currently, about 80% of global commercial fish populations are being fully exploited or overexploited, leading to large impacts on marine biodiversity. Capture fisheries, therefore, are unlikely to be able to contribute to meeting the increasing fish demand.
Fish farming could be an option
Fish farming of predatory species, such as salmon, uses wild-caught fish as part of the fish feed. Further innovations in the composition of this feed, but also a switch to an increased consumption of herbivorous fish, would reduce the amounts of wild-caught fish required in fish feed. This would involve only a small increase in agricultural land used in the production of the feed for these additional numbers of farmed herbivorous fish. In this way, wild fish stocks would be protected, could recover and possibly provide higher catches in the future.
There are many options to reduce the impacts of livestock production
Main points of intervention are: shifts in consumption, reduction in food losses, changes in husbandry systems and animal breeds, feed conversion and feed composition, nutrient management, crop yields and land management. Modelling results demonstrate that significant reductions in environmental pressure are possible, at the global level, by improving crop yields and feed conversion and by a reduction in food losses along the food chain. The same results indicate that a reduction in the EU consumption of animal products would lead to a significant reduction in environmental impacts, mainly by reducing land conversion outside the EU. The fact that this would take place mainly outside the EU is partly a result of the current design of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which stimulates European farmers to keep their land in agricultural production.
The options for the EU to reduce the impacts of livestock production can be grouped into three broad, partially complementary strategies: shifts in consumption, resource efficiency and producing with fewer local impacts
Consumption shifts, particularly a reduction in the consumption of livestock products, will not only have environmental benefits, but may also reduce the cardiovascular disease burden. This option is easy and robust, but changing consumption patterns is a slow cultural process. Improving production efficiency is already common practice, as there are many synergies between enhancing production and reducing costs. Further improvements along this route are certainly possible, especially regarding a better use of relatively cheap inputs (e.g. fertilisers) and reducing emissions. Producing with fewer local impacts may have negative environmental effects elsewhere, since production may be less efficient, such as in the case of improved animal welfare. More robust production systems with fewer local impacts, generally, lead to higher costs for farmers. However, if done properly, this would lead to lower societal costs by reducing local environmental impacts, animal suffering and public health risks.
Governments and actors in the food chain both could play a role in the implementation of the three strategies
Current policy and institutional setting mainly drive farmers and other actors in the direction of cost price reductions, and thus primarily support the ‘efficiency’ strategy. Policies aimed at reducing consumption hardly exist, and policies regarding producing with fewer local impacts are usually secondary to economic and trade policies. Especially the EU, but also the national governments, have a large influence on the agriculture and fisheries sectors. Main policy instruments are the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, which are currently undergoing a reform. Food and agriculture may play a role in EU initiatives, such as ‘Resource Efficient Europe’. Individual consumers and actors in food production have many opportunities to reduce the impacts of livestock production, independently from government actions. Consumers could shift to the consumption of products with lower environmental or animal welfare impacts. Retailers could expand their assortment of these products, and could enter into agreements with farmers and other food suppliers to improve production techniques.
The full report can be downloaded for free from http://www.pbl.nl/sites/default/files/cms/publicaties/Protein_Puzzle_web_1.pdf.
- greenhouse gas emissions
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