Plant-Based Proteins Support Sustainable Food Systems

By Arun Sriram January 29, 2023

Studies show how both people and the planet gain from shifting to a diet rich in plant-based proteins as well as more vegetables and fruits on the daily plate

Plant-Based Proteins Support Sustainable Food Systems
Plant- based protein sources come with less fats and cholesterol as compared to animal-based sources. DepositPhotos

Food is a critical component for a healthy life. Even more so nowadays when fast paced lifestyles have made traditional forms of eating complete meals more difficult. The need to plan food intake to ensure the right combination of macro- and micro-nutrients is more critical now than ever. Among the macro-nutrients, protein remains a particularly important component that one needs to consume, especially for vegetarians, as many traditional staples like rice and wheat which form the core of meals tend to bring in more carbohydrates. However, many legumes like pulses do have high protein content in the range of 20-35 percent by dry weight of protein and can be good sources of protein if adequately included in the diet. For non-vegetarians, including more plant-based protein in the diet and reducing meat intake can be an important step towards good health.

Proteins are a critical nutrient for the structure and functionality of the body. Muscles, blood, skin and hair are key tissues that have a high component of protein in their structure. Further, many enzymes are essentially proteins and they control critical biochemical pathways in the body. In fact, an average adult needs approximately 0.8 gram of protein in daily food intake per kilogram of body weight, with active athletes requiring up to 50 percent more. Even within the 30 amino acids in protein that the body needs, there are nine essential amino acids amounting to about a third of this intake that the body cannot synthesise by itself and have to be gained through food. While animal- based protein such as meat, egg and milk tend to have a more complete mix of essential amino acids, a simple combination of cereals like rice or wheat, and legumes like pulses also offer a complete essential amino acid profile. It may be the reason that they have been eaten in combination in many traditional diets.

Plant- based protein sources come with less fats and cholesterol as compared to animal-based sources. While red meat and whole eggs are particularly seen as cholesterol rich with associated cardio-vascular health risks correlated to their high consumption over time, having more fibre rich plant-based protein sources has also been shown to aid better health. Considering factors, reducing meat consumption and increasing more plant-based protein sources can help improve overall health.

Plant-based protein sources can come with lesser risks of externalities like anti-microbial resistance, pesticides and contaminants. While plant agriculture does have its own risks of pesticide use, this can be mitigated with safe harvest and organic food sources. However, this problem gets amplified with animal farming as these pesticides can be further concentrated in the animal feed. The need to use antibiotics to rear animals economically in packed farms increases the number of new antibiotic resistant microbes, which can harm humans, being spawned though the food chain. Zoonotic disease incidence of shifting from lower life forms to humans also increases.

Plant based sources of protein are much more planet friendly in terms of having a much lower carbon, water and energy footprint. A simple reason for this is that approximately three times the amount of food and energy is used to feed animals before they are slaughtered for meat. Data shows that a 100 g of plant-based protein has approximately CO2 footprint of half kg, which can go up to almost 25 kg CO2 per 100 g protein from beef. Considering water, land and energy use, plant- based protein is much more sustainable for the planet, especially as the global population grows to nearly 10 billion in the coming decades.

Plant-based foods can also be more easily produced, stored, transported and consumed than animal-based foods. With food supply chains becoming longer and further away from home to source of production, much of the animal production needs more extensive packaging and cold supply chain management than comparable plant-based sources. This further makes it more efficient and robust to pick plant-based sources to boost protein intake simply and conveniently.

To sum it up, protein is critical to good health and getting adequate quantity in your diet is an important part of planned eating. The EAT-Lancet and other such studies shows how both people and planet gain from shifting to a diet richer in plant-based proteins as well as more vegetables and fruits on the daily plate. India with its huge population share of the world represents an important opportunity in managing this food transition for health and sustainability.

While data shows non-vegetarians are a majority, the per capita consumption of meats is still low and vegetarian food forms a significant part of the overall diet. The cultural ethos also has elements of ahimsa and the virtues of vegetarianism as a backdrop. It is an important opportunity to see how the adoption of plant-based protein and food can be strengthened to drive the country to a path of sustainable healthy food systems.

(Arun Sriram is founder of Innovative Nutrition Solutions, a part of IIMB NSRCEL Velocity Cohort.)