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The Role of Agriculture and Consumers in Developing Sustainable Diets
Agriculture is the source for our food and nourishment and vital to our existence. Agriculture and food production also require a variety of natural resources such as arable land, fossil-energy derived nutrients and water. These resources were abundant around the globe in the past, but are now facing critical shortages.
We are entering an era where our planet will encounter multiple adversities, which will likely exacerbate our current living conditions. Topping the list include a surging global population requiring the outlay of enormous natural resources (water, land and energy) and a warming planet causing varied and unpredictable weather patterns directly impacting agriculture and thus our food supply (discussed in Chapter 1).
Animal-based protein (especially meat) is a main component of menus in the developed economies. Meat production relies on a substantial amount of natural resource inputs and has a hefty carbon footprint (Figure 1). Livestock convert plant protein to animal protein via an inefficient process. In recent decades, cultivation of corn and soybean dominated agriculture as a source of inexpensive plant protein for meat production in developed economies. In today’s environment, we can ill-afford to expend these earthly resources for inefficiently produced animal protein to satisfy the dietary needs of some of the populace while an additional 2 billion (or 30% more) people will inhabit the earth in the next 30 years. Rather, land and resources currently dedicated towards animal feed and meat production should shift towards cultivating crops that produce protein and nutrient dense foods sustainably and suitable for direct human consumption. Pulses, ancient grains, seeds, nuts, and alternative sources such as protein derived from microalgae and insects can fulfil this need.
A plant-based food system intended for direct human consumption reduces the amount of required natural resources such as land, energy and water, with lower greenhouse gas emissions and a reduced carbon footprint. Availability of adequate amounts and types of pulses, cereals and grains will enable food manufacturers to produce more complete plant-based menu options. Consumer awareness of the relationship between food and health and environmental issues has spurred an increase in the consumption of plant-based foods. However, the adequacy of protein-rich crops and their ingredient supply chain is imperative for food manufacturers to offer new and sustainable products that resonate with consumers. Therefore, an alteration of our existing agricultural landscape and practices is necessary with a concurrent consumer demand towards more sustainable products.
This transformation of our farms and food supplies are not without its challenges. Subsidies, or crop protection policies for certain commodity crops, may hinder farmers from cultivating crops for direct human consumption. Erratic weather patterns may also affect crop health and yields of food pulses, cereals and grains. Not all consumers may gravitate towards plant-based or alternative foods. However, in order to provide food for 10 billion people by 2050, fundamental changes in our eating habits towards a more plant-based diet are essential. Consumer’s demand for sustainable food products and future dietary choices can directly influence the next generation of foods produced and the crops that will be cultivated.
Dr. Nadathur is co-editor of Sustainable Protein Sources, the first reference on dietary proteins that covers the land, water, and energy usage inputs, nutritive outputs, and food applications of plant and other non-meat proteins. Sustainable Protein Sources allows readers to understand how alternative proteins—such as plant, fungal, algal, and insect protein—can take the place of more costly and less efficient animal-based sources.
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