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Less beef is better for us

Jakarta | Wed, June 22, 2016 | 09:50 am
Less beef is better for us Locals shop meat in Peunayong Market in Banda Aceh of Aceh on June 4. (Antara/Ampelsa)

For the majority of Indonesians, Ramadhan is not only a month of spiritual journey, but also the time when they experience recurring food price hikes, which are largely caused by skyrocketing demand for certain foods. 

To address this annual issue, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo last week assembled his economic ministers to implement a series of actions to curb food prices in the market, especially of beef. In a market mechanism of supply versus demand, a high demand for beef by a large number of the population indeed creates significant economic benefit for some people, but one needs to look beyond that. 

Do people understand the impact of consuming too much beef or animal-sourced food on the environment? Do we really need to have beef on the table? Perhaps one of the answers to the soaring beef prices is to change our diets. 

A recent study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that shifting the diets of populations who consume high amounts of animal-based food, especially beef, to plant-based food will reduce pressure on land use and lower the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the agricultural sector. This is because animal-based foods are typically more resource intensive compared to plant-based foods. 

Cattle use more land and water and generate more GHG emissions per unit of protein than any other commonly consumed food. Approximately a quarter of the Earth’s land area is used as pastureland and about a third of all water in farm animal production goes to cattle. The production of one ton of protein from beef emits as much carbon as the felling of four 35-year-old trees in a tropical forest. 

Meanwhile, the production of one ton of protein derived from plants such as wheat, maize and pulses is equal to the felling of only a single mature tree.

Of the animal-based food, beef especially is one of the least efficient to produce. The huge amount of calories and protein consumed by cattle only yield a small amount of calories and protein for human consumption. For example, only 1 percent of calories and 4 percent of protein eaten up by cattle get converted to human-edible calories and protein. In contrast, poultry convert 11 percent of calories and 20 percent of protein they consume into human-edible calories and protein.

Hence, by doing even small shifts in our diet choices into less beef consumption, we can go a long way to help the environment. The WRI study shows that in a global scenario whereby those high consumers of beef reduce their beef consumption by 40 percent, the total land area that will be spared from being used as pastureland is roughly two times the size of India. 

Additionally, it would avoid future global GHG emissions that are more than three times the total emissions of 2009.

While the environmental benefits result from eating less meal, human beings as a whole may also want to reduce their intake of protein and calories. 

Globally, an average person eats more than his or her dietary requirements, therefore leading to the overconsumption of food. For example, the average daily adult requirement for protein is 51 grams. 

However, globally our species consumes on average about 68 grams of protein per day. Experts have noted that overconsumption of protein is linked to some health problems, including kidney stones and the deterioration of kidney function in patients with renal disease.

Similarly, individuals in Indonesia consume more protein than the required dietary intake. The data from the WRI study further suggest that an average Indonesian consumed an increasing amount of animal-based protein over the past four decades, from five grams per day in 1961 to 15 grams per day in 2011. By 2030, the average Indonesian is projected to consume more than 30 grams of animal-based protein per day. 

This implies that the demands for animal-based food will continue to increase and given that our religious and cultural festivities in Indonesia often put beef and other animal-based food on a must-have menu on the table, we may expect that the overconsumption of protein will especially occur during these times.

Overall, humanity needs to gradually transform its food diet culture by reducing animal-based protein overconsumption, especially of beef. To do so, people should focus on shifting consumption to a variety of different high-quality protein sources, such as fish, poultry and plant-based protein. 

Meals that contain plant sources of protein especially contain more fiber and less fat than meals that feature animal-based protein and research suggested that people who eat sufficient amount of plant food tend to have much better health than those who eat a heavy meat diet. This diet shift, however, focuses on reducing rather than eliminating beef consumption, as we recognize that beef consumption supports the livelihood of cattle-dependent farmers and cattle ranching makes use of otherwise unproductive land.

Moderate intake of protein will eventually support sustainable agriculture production, help reduce land-based GHG emissions and, possibly, mitigate price instability during Ramadhan. Changing our food culture, especially as related to customs and festivities, is indeed a challenging and slow process, but putting it into environmental and health perspectives would accelerate the process. 

After all, Ramadhan is an opportunity to practice moderation and self-restraint.

 

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The authors, respectively, are country director and forests and climate manager at the World Resources Institute Indonesia.

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