Sensible management of protein

The issue

Several global developments, such as an increasing demand for animal products in China and India, necessitate a more sensible way of dealing with proteins.
On a European level, important questions present themselves about self-sufficiency in protein-rich crops combined with biofuel production [5].
Central is that many problems are related to the fact that we consume ever more animal instead of vegetable protein [1].
Some facts about meat illustrate this.
To produce one kilo in animal protein requires, depending on the animal and the conditions, 3-10 kilos of vegetable protein; by feeding it to animals first 85% of vegetable protein is wasted, and so is more -ever scarcer- water and farmland.
A kilo of beef requires 15m3 of water, a kilo of lamb 10 m3, while a kilo of wheat only requires 0.4-3 m3 of water. At the moment 75% of all available fresh water, 35% of all ice-free land and 20% of all energy is used for the production of food.
Between 1950 and 2000 the world population doubled from 2.7 to 6 billion people, but the production of meat increased fivefold from 45 to 233 billion kilos per year. In 2050 the FAO expects almost 9 billion people (+50%) and a meat production of about 465 billion kilos a year (+100%). Milk production will also double from 580 billion kilos in 2000 to 1050 billion kilos in 2050.
The FAO as well attests to the disproportionately large impact of meat production on the environment - both the use of natural resources (land, biodiversity, water) and emissions (CO2, pesticides, ammonia) - and argues the case for change [9].

Towards a solution

If people were to eat more vegetable instead of animal protein, it would yield tremendous benefits. Such a 'protein transition' would benefit, among others, climate, water, public health and animal well-being (40-50% of the world's grain harvest is used as animal food). Not everyone needs to become a vegetarian, but improved meat substitutes should replace our meat more often. The protein transition has many additional benefits. According to a cautious estimate so much land would become available for cultivating biomass that 25% of the present world-wide production of energy can sustainably be covered [1]. All this without any harmful effect on farmlands (with extensively produced meat) and tropical rainforests. This might greatly decrease the pressure on biodiversity.
The protein transition may also help to make the meat economy, which is being plagued by animal disease and crises [4], healthier, more extensive and friendlier to animals. In this way the transition would positively influence public health [6], because of the decrease in both obesity and meat-related diseases. This does not only include foot-and-mouth disease and BSE, but especially avian flu. Intensive production in Southeast Asia, with ever increasing numbers of poultry and pigs, increases the frequency with which the influenza virus mutates into varieties which are dangerous to humans [7] to such a degree that the WHO believes a pandemic is merely a matter of time. The Netherlands may contribute to a solution by a) eating a third less protein (the average overconsumption in the Netherlands), b) substitute a third for vegetable protein (NFPs or 'Novel Protein Foods') and c) substitute the remaining third for extensively produced meat.
Besides, the Netherlands are a country within Europe where people eat remarkably little vegetable protein and fish and a lot of meat. A report by IVM, MNP, ECN (Dutch Center for Energy Studies), WUR and UU, (institutions in the areas of the environment, nature, energy and other research) to be published in November 2007, on the link between the production of biofuel and food, shows again the importance of decreasing the quantity of animal food in one's diet and it concludes that bio refining and the transition to a 'bio based economy' are required for sustainability [2].

Consumers and the business world

In their analysis, MNP and CPB (Dutch planning offices for the environment and economics) point their hand at the consumer, who should be made aware of the discrepancy between his need for animal well-being and a clean environment on the one hand and his current purchasing behavior on the other. Based on our research we advocate a different approach. Our arguments are as follows.
  1. The discrepancy that is mentioned, is deceptive. There is much sympathy among the public for products that are produced in an animal-friendly way, and this sympathy is absent for products from animal farming, but it is not true that consumers are ashamed of buying intensively produced meat. They have little insight into the production methods and underestimate the effort it takes a producer before he is allowed to use the EKO-logo (a logo for goods and foods that have been produced using sustainable methods). Turning the issue around, they overestimate the difference in price with conventional products. When making a comparative assessment many can choose the cheapest alternative without moral scruples. It is mostly the consumers who are troubled by conventionally produced meat who buy free-range meat.
  2. There exists a major gap between the approach to sustainability between consumers on the one hand and on the other hand producers and supermarkets. Consumers find animal well-being, but especially health, much more interesting than the environment. Apart from specific topics, such as pesticides, the environment in a broad sense is not an aspect consumers identify with when they choose which foods to purchase. Topics such as the use of energy and separation of waste do not concern them much. Furthermore, consumers have little faith in the role of supermarkets when it comes to providing information on animal well-being and the environment.
  3. Consumers are a diverse group They are to various degrees receptive to information on animal well-being and the environment. Analyses of their involvement in food and their motivational patterns show five different types of eating behavior. There are cautious eaters, eaters focused on taste, large eaters, eaters who show little interest and habitual eaters. Cautious eaters are the most open to information on animal well-being and the environment; habitual eaters have little thought fort his. Therefore different approaches tailored to different types of consumers are necessary.
The approach using several links, as suggested by MNP and CPB, can only be successful when several pathways are developed, aimed at sustainability, that are sufficiently geared to the Dutch situation and the Dutch position in the world.
In a European context, we could certainly contribute to self-sufficiency in protein crops combined with Novel Protein Food (NPF) and the production of biofuel [5].
To get the process started, new initiatives are necessary.
It is especially important that companies which are trend-setting on a national and international level (such as Unilever and Ahold), take a more active approach in working with different social groups to develop a common view on sustainability.
Autors: & , Instituut voor Milieuvraagstukken (Institute for Environmental Studies), PROFETAS, Amsterdam, October 11, 2007.


  1. Aiking, H., J. De Boer and J.M. Vereijken Sustainable Protein Consumption: Pigs or Peas? Environment & Policy Vol. 45. Dordrecht: Springer, 2006. ISBN 1-4020-4062-8
  2. Aiking, H. 'Food Demand' in: Biomass Assessment of the Applicability of Biomass for Energy and Materials. Netherlands Research Programme on Climate Change (NRP-CC), subprogramme Scientific Assessment and Policy Analysis (WAB). Den Haag.
  3. De Boer, J., M. Helms and H. Aiking 'Proetin Consumption and Sustainability: Diet Diversity' in: EU-15, Ecological Economics 59 (p 267-274).
  4. De Boer, J., F.H. Willemsen and H. Aiking Voedselveiligheid, communicatie en gedrag: analyse van een viertal recente incidenten. IVM rapport. Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit, 2003. (Report on food safety, communication and behavior.)
  5. ESC (Economic and Social Committee) Ways Forward for Sustainable Agriculture Brussels: ESC, 2002. CES-2002-002-EN, ISBN 92-830-0008-0.
  6. McMichael, A.J., J.P. Powles, C.D. Butler and R Uauy Food, Livestock Production, Energy, Climate Change and Health Lancet DOI: 10.1016?S0140-6736(07)61256-2.
  7. Pilcher, H. 'Increasing Virulence of Bird Flu Threatens Animals' in: Nature 430 (p 4).
  8. PROFETAS Protein Foods, Environment, Technology and Society Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit, 2007.
  9. Steinfeld, H. P. Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, M. Rosales and C. de Haan Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental issues and Options. Rome: FAO, 2006. ISBN 978-92-5-105571-7.

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