Transition towards plant-based diets is challenging the food system

2020-10-15 Ellen Huan-Niemi
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The food system is a contributing force to climate change, biodiversity loss, the depletion of freshwater resources, unsustainable changes in land use, and the pollution of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems through excessive inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus via fertilisers and manure. The environmental effects of the food system can be lessened through dietary changes towards healthier and more plant-based diets along with reductions in food loss and waste. According to Saarinen et al. (2019), greenhouse gas emissions from the food system in Finland can be reduced from 13% to 37% in alternative plant-based and fish-rich diets.

Investments needed

A successful transition toward a more plant-based diet would involve considerable investments in the agricultural and food industry, particularly to increase legume production and processing. It is quite challenging for Finland to considerably increase production of plant-based and protein-rich food because the current competitive advantage of Finnish agriculture lies in livestock and greenhouse production, not so much in plant production.

Furthermore, the possibilities for agricultural producers to increase production of plant-based and protein-rich food vary regionally. Southern Finland, where quite large plant production farms are located, has the best prerequisites for increasing pulses production, which require a sufficient heat summation. Elsewhere in Finland due to poorer farming conditions, the replacement of livestock production with more diverse plant production will be significantly more difficult compared to Southern Finland.

A substantial drop in the demand for meat and dairy products may cause considerable local economic and social problems, particularly in the main livestock production regions, e.g. several regions in Southwest Finland, Ostrobothnia and North Savo. The result could be a decrease in employment and tax revenues in many rural municipalities.

Another obstacle is the lack of facilities suitable for interim processing or pre-processing and the supply of plant-based and protein-rich ingredients or raw materials such as a flour or protein isolate needed by the agri-food industry. Therefore, a dietary change would involve considerable investments in the agri-food industry, particularly to promote legume production and new food processing.

More development of new and enticing meat-replacement products from legumes, currently considered as feed crops, will be needed. There should be increased demand for shared activities between the actors in the food chain, including continuous research in legume farming to boost Finnish legume production.

"A successful transition would also require the development of new value chains for innovative food products to respond to the change in consumption."

The magnitude of changes in food consumption calls for concerted policy support

Policy support and guidance is needed both for the dietary change and for the affected sectors and regions to cope with the negative impacts from the desired changes. Sustainable dietary change requires a mix of policy measures to be implemented throughout the food system. The analysis of policy mixes highlights the necessity to look at both production and consumption, when developing policies for sustainable dietary change.

The existence of major vested interests and centres of power makes the political economy of diet change highly challenging. Furthermore, history suggests that change in dietary behaviours in response to interventions is slow. But social norms can and do change and this process can be aided by the coordinated efforts of civil society, health organizations, and government, as has been observed in the case of smoking cessation (Godfray et al. 2018).

Various studies reviewed by Godfray et al. (2018) indicated that there will be a substantial increase in the global demand for meat; and there is widespread agreement that most of the increase in meat consumption will occur in low- and middle-income countries. The biggest challenge is sustainable dietary transition for consumers with increasing average individual incomes in middle-income countries.

The transition of Western diets toward less resource-demanding diets would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries, but it is also important to halt the shift toward more meat consumption in middle-income countries and emerging economies, which would further increase the impact of the food system globally. A transition towards plant-based and fish-rich diets in Western societies would contribute to climate change mitigation goals; however, sustainable dietary transition in populous countries in Asia such as China and India can substantially reduce global meat demand to make a bigger impact for the world to mitigate climate change.

"Therefore, there is a need for concerted efforts to reduce the impact of the food system globally and not only in the developed countries alone."

Senior Research Scientist Ellen Huan-Niemi, Natural Research Institute Finland (Luke)


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