QUALITY COUNTS - SIMPLE PROTEIN MEASURES NOT SUFFICIENT FOR ACCURATE ENVIRONMENTAL FOOTPRINTS
Environmental impacts of beef and dairy halved by new assessment
The environmental footprints of certain foodstuffs, calculated per unit of protein produced, risk misinforming food stakeholders and consumers, according to a new study.
Instead, the full nutritional value of foodstuffs needs to be fully considered when scientists are trying to calculate the environmental impact of producing different foods, say the authors.
The study took a measure of protein quality called the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) and used it to create ‘adjusted’ environmental footprint metrics for a variety of foods. Using this method, many animal-based products’ environmental impacts were almost halved (e.g., dairy beef) whilst the impacts associated with wheat bread, for instance, increased by almost 60%.
Rothamsted’s Dr Graham McAuliffe, the lead author of the study said, “This study highlights the need for both nutritional and environmental sciences to be taken into account to fully understand the impact that food production has on human and environmental health.”
Protein is a highly complex nutrient comprising amino acids, nine of which, known as essential or indispensable amino acids (IAA), cannot be produced directly by humans and must come from dietary sources. Moreover, the digestibility of different amino acids within the human gut is highly variable. In other words, the quantity of protein in a product does not necessarily represent its quality, which is affected by numerous factors, including the fact that some food items (typically plant-based products) contain other factors which can inhibit or restrict nutrient uptake.
The team used the DIAAS score to represent how digestible a food item’s amino acids are. When this is applied to four animal-based foods (dairy beef, cheese, eggs, and pork) and four plant based protein sources (nuts, peas, tofu, and wheat), all the animal-based products scored more than 100% DIAAS due to their highly digestible structure and lack of inhibitory compound;, Tofu had a DIAAS of 105%, whilst the three other plant-based protein sources scored under 100%, with wheat scoring particularly poorly (43%).
A healthy average human would need to consume much more low-DIAAS products to achieve the same protein benefit compared with high-DIAAS products, thus leading to more production and associated environmental impact to reach the same level of recommended intake.
“Simple ‘mass-based’ - nutrient content rather than quality - comparisons of food items’ sustainability is not sufficient to provide policymakers and stakeholders with transparent and useful information on how to reduce their environmental impacts across agri-food supply-chains,” said Dr McAuliffe.
“Food items are rarely consumed in isolation, and therefore one of the major recommendations we urge future nutritionally-focussed sustainability assessors to consider is the complementarity of food at, for instance, the meal level or multi-meal level.”
According to McAuliffe, this is a critically important factor for consideration as low DIAAS values in one item may be offset by higher scores in other foods, thereby allowing targeted assessments of protein delivery for different regions, nations, or populations which may be deficient in a certain IAA.
The team also caution that environmental impacts should only form part of the sustainability picture. Future work should incorporate socioeconomic factors (e.g., rural economies, animal welfare, fair trade, and so on) to truly assess food production’s sustainability, especially when considering international food trade and potential market shocks such as warfare and economic crashes which can affect the delivery of food security.
About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
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1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)
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The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.