Global Food Security- the issue of Climate Change

The food system faces several challenges in the 21st century, particularly revolving around how to create a secure food system. This blog touches upon the issue of climate change, addressing the challenge we face to produce 40% more food by 2030, whilst also reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted and coping with the inevitable impacts of global warming. Climate change threatens the food systemin many unpredictable ways, most notably through the danger of sea level rise and the volatile climatic conditions, all of which could impact food security. The World Food Summit define food security as, “…when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

What should we do?

With climate change threatening food security, solutions have arisen to mitigate such dangers. One solution refers to the adoption of a sustainable dietSustainable diets are defined as, “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations…”. Specific examples of such diets include vegetarian and vegan diets. Principally, this involves eliminating meat and animal produce from your diet and embracing a more plant-based approach. One factor driving this change concerns link between red meat and the emission of greenhouse gases. People have begun to argue that if the world went vegan we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds

London Borough Market. Photo credit: Garry Knight

These diets have become prominent globally, as individuals identify it as a way by which they can do their bit to reduce their carbon footprint. With one in eight Britons now classed as vegetarian or vegan, companies have recognised it as an opportunity to introduce new meat-substitute products to the food market. However, as a vegetarian myself I admit that these products have largely been accepted into our diets with little consideration of what the true implications may be. Quorn is the world’s leader in meat alternativesand has recently risen in popularity, experiencing a 12% increase in 2018. The following sections of this blog will examine the positive and negative implications of Quorn, from a social and environmental perspective. 

What exactly is Quorn?

Quorn is a mycoprotein extracted from a natural fungus called Fasarioum Venenatum, and was originally found in the south-east of England. Typically, it is made by adding oxygen, nitrogen, glucose and minerals to the mycoprotein and then fermenting in a controlled environment to achieve the optimum growing conditions.Later the mycoprotein is harvested, a small amount of egg white (or potato starch for vegan products) is added to shape the Quorn, before it is frozen to give it the meat-like texture

Is Quorn good for us?

The health implications of Quorn have become a pressing issue as an increasing number of consumers utilise it as their alternative to meat. Quorn is portrayed as a healthy alternative for individuals who are lacking protein and the essential amino acids following the decision to reduce their meat consumption. The key attributes of Quorn include its provision of protein and fibre, its low content of saturated fat and carbohydrates and the fact that it contains no sugar or negligible salt. Additionally, Quorn has more recently been associated with having the potential to reduce cholesterol levels, manage obesity and type-2 diabetes. When compared to meat, and the recent publications which have emphasised how diets containing too much red meat can lead to high levels of saturated fat and therefore, increase individual’s risk of high cholesterol levels and heart disease, there are clear health benefits of choosing Quorn over meat.

Figure 1: the health effects of substituting meat with other protein sources. Note that mycoprotein comes out on top or matches that of pea protein for all national income classes. HIC: high-income country; UMIC: upper-middle-income country; LMIC: lower-middle-income country; LIC: low-income country. Data source: Godfrey, H, C, J,. (2019) Meat: the Future series- Alternative Proteins[online] World Economic Forum [Viewed 1 November 2019] Available from:  http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_White_Paper_Alternative_Proteins.pdf

However, we cannot be naïve to assume that there are no downsides to Quorn. There has been substantial controversy around eating a highly processed food like Quorn. It has a high composition of additives and high-tech ingredients, such as flavourings and colourings and gelling agents. This is problematic as countries are already undergoing the nutrition transition, as traditional diets move towards more Westernised versions, which are high in saturated fat, refined carbohydrates and processed food.Quorn is a processed food to add to this list which is already a cause for concern, especially in Britain where it is said to have the worst diets in Europe as half of the food people buy is now classed as ultra-processed.

Previous reports have also associated Quorn with causing allergic reactions and sending people into anaphylactic shock, as it has been exposed that Quorn’s fungal ingredient is an allergen. Whilst Quorn admit this is possible, they state that the chance of people being affected by this is very rare, at approximately 1 in every 100,000 to 200,000 people. They further defend themselves by making clear that this is a low intolerance compared to other substitutes such as soya, where 1 in every 200people could react. 

But what about the environmental implications?

Advocates of Quorn promote it as a sustainable and environmentally-friendly product which has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than meat, claiming that the carbon footprint of Quorn mince is more than 90% lower than that of beef mince. Given the present-day environmental crisis, developing a meat-substitute with a smaller carbon footprint is a step in the right direction for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and managing climate change. Quorn has had exceptional success rates in improving its carbon footprint, with 50% of its products having been certified with the carbon trust footprint

Quorn is also highly sustainable, ensuring that it only uses sustainable palm oil for its products. This is especially important considering the conflicting views on the use of palm oil and the devastating impacts it has for biodiversity loss as it deforests habitats . To further promote its sustainability as a company, Quorn are able to recycle 80% of their packaging, and they have pledged to improve this to 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025

 

Figure 2: The annual CO2e emissions for a diet containing beef compared to a vegetarian and vegan diet. The reduction in CO2e for vegetarian and vegan diets compared with that of beef are significant. Data source: Baumann, A., (2013) Greenhouse gas emissions associated with different meat-free diets in Sweden. Ph.D. thesis, Uppsala University [Viewed 28 October 2019]. Available from: https://uu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:624558/FULLTEXT01.pdf 

However, despite attaining the carbon trust footprint certification for 50% of its products, Quorn still faces some controversy in the figures it has published. A study published in 2010 claimed that whilst Quorn had a smaller carbon footprint than beef, it scored higher than chicken. However, a following study in 2017 maintained that Quorn had a smaller carbon footprint than both beef and chicken. Questions have arisen concerning why there is this differentiation between figures. When these environmental documents were requested to be made public to clarify this differentiation, Quorn maintained that they were unable to provide them

An area in which Quorn may not be as environmentally friendly as it appears to be concerns the transportation of the products and the issues of food miles. Despite having originally been founded and sold in England, Quorn is now owned by a firm in the Philippines known as Monde Nissin. Considering that it exports to eighteen different countries, it must mean that certain products have especially high food miles. Could the environmental impact of the food miles potentially outweigh the improvements Quorn has made to reduce its carbon footprint in terms of production and resource use? Whilst food miles are not the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions within the food system, this is a factor which needs to be considered by consumers when they opt to buy Quorn over meat.

So what do you think?

In my opinion there are substantial benefits of substituting meat for Quorn. Not only do I refer to the potential health benefits of eating Quorn, but I also care for the environment. The intensive farming of beef and lamb significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, and for this reason I decided to make my diet more sustainable by eliminating meat and reducing my personal carbon footprint. As I have highlighted the key implications of Quorn, socially as well as environmentally, it is now down to the general public to formulate their own opinions. 

Comment your thoughts below.