Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Chicken and beacon more environment friendly than fruits and vegetables? Strange findings!

Science can be some times really mysterious in its findings and researchers who bring out scientific results through their efforts are also as mysterious as the subject they pursue. R & D is a hotly debated area because of bias attributed to many studies due to the dependence of such efforts on funding from sponsors most of whom have an agenda in getting results of their likings. There are also academic studies by researchers to obtain a university degree and many of their findings also may not reflect the true situation due to many factors. This is the reason why many advocate that scientific research in areas of public interest must be pursued in public funded research organizations which do not have any axe to grind while looking for results. It is not correct to brand all private sponsored research as "motivated" as there are many outstanding research institutions with very high credibility and scientific credentials. Carnegie Melon University is supposed to be such an organization and if they bring out some startling findings that fly against the currently accepted notions, one has to sit and listen to them. Recent claims by a group there regarding the green house gas emissions by vegetables being more than that by the beacon industry need to be taken seriously though prima facie they appear to be ludicrous. Here is a take on this controversial issue.  

"Vegetarians may be no greener than bacon-lovers, according to new research. In fact, lettuce eaters may be three times worse.
Looking at the way food is consumed in the United States, a student-professor team from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh concluded that following the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended nutritional guidelines to eat more fruits, vegetables, dairy, and seafood is actually more harmful to the environment than a diet of typically "less healthy" foods.  "Eating lettuce is over three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon," said Paul Fischbeck, professor of social and decisions sciences and engineering and public policy, in a statement. "Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think. Eggplant, celery and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken." Dr. Fischbeck and his co-authors, whose study appeared in the journal Environment Systems and Decisions, found that the USDA recommendations tended to have higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissionsper calorie than alternatives. Following the supply chain from growing to processing to transporting food, and onto store shelves and tables, as well as household storage, the researchers measured the strain on environmental resources in the form of energy use, water use, and GHG emissions.
Eating fewer calories and reducing weight was found to have a positive effect on the environment by shoring up energy use, water use, and emissions from the food supply chain by some 9 percent, according to the study. By comparison, eating the USDA recommended "healthier" foods – a variety of fruits, vegetables, dairy, and seafood – increased the environmental impact across all three categories the study examined: Energy use went up by 38 percent, water use by 10 percent and GHG emissions by 6 percent, according to the study. The initial findings of the study were "surprising", according to senior research fellow Anthony Froggatt at Chatham House, a think-tank unaffiliated with the research that is looking at the connection between meat consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Froggatt said in an interview with the Independent that it is "true lettuce can be incredibly water intensive and energy intensive to produce", but comparative exercises like the one performed by CMU can yield vastly different results depending on how the foods are raised or grown. "We usually look at proteins rather than calories, and as a general rule it is still the case that reducing meat consumption in favor of plant-based proteins can reduce emissions," he said.
Still, with global population ballooning, "we have a pressing need to eat better and farm better," Tamar Hospel, a food-policy columnist for The Washington Post, wrote last August.  Lettuce, Ms. Hospel writes, "has almost nothing going for it. It occupies precious crop acreage, requires fossil fuels to be shipped, refrigerated, around the world, and adds nothing but crunch to the plate," citing its high water content and relatively low nutritional value.  Michelle Tom, a co-author of the study, acknowledges the relationship between diet and environment is "complex."
"What is good for us health-wise isn't always what's best for the environment," she said in a statement. "That's important for public officials to know and for them to be cognizant of these trade-offs as they develop or continue to develop dietary guidelines in the future."

The Carnegie Mellon findings may contradict the soon-to-be-released USDA dietary guidelines which are expected to recommend more veggies and less meat consumption as part of a diet that's "more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average US diet," an advisory panel draft said, according to the Associated Press."

Common man can get highly confused because meat industry has been castigated across the world as polluting industry and raising meat animals involves waste of resources, the conversion efficiency of the animals vis-a-vis the "feeds into food" is recognized as poor. If so how can it be a relatively minor culprit in greenhouse gas emission? If the claims are true why the competent authorities who recommend several servings of fruits and vegetables every day, can assert that their production is more friendly towards environment protection compared to meat production? These findings raise several pertinent questions to which answers must be found sooner than later. How does this new finding affect the diets of more than 6 billion people living in this planet? Is the mankind better off by expanding meat consumption in the long run in stead of the persisting on the present high pitch campaign by almost all segments of the society to become vegetarians? Shunning of meat is a national priority in many countries and is it necessary for them to stop such policies believing fully the outcome of the above research? Though earlier studies were focusing more on protein cost which is always high in the case of animal products, the present comparison of calorie expenditure per unit of product may justify curbing production of fruits and vegetables but the million dollar question is whether the results of these limited studies can be confirmed by multi country studies supported by international agencies immediately to prevent unnecessary anxieties among consumers? 


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