Life cycle assessment of novel plant products compared to animal products

Main Presenter: Niels Jungbluth 

Co-Authors:

Objective of the study

Meat and animal products have been identified as a major driver of environmental impacts in the food sector. Traditional simple vegan products like legumes often show considerably lower environmental impacts but are less accepted by consumers. In the last years a huge increase of processed plant products which serve as direct alternatives to animal products can be observed. But little is known about their environmental impacts. The ESU world food database has been extended in the last years for several such products. Here we present the direct comparison for different animal-based food items with their vegan or vegetarian counterparts.

Methodology

The life cycle inventories are based on single projects, literature research and published studies for single products. All data have been harmonized with the LCI methodology applied for the ESU database (like the ecoinvent methodology). The data are fully documented in EcoSpold format. Here we discuss the environmental impacts from farm to shop. The home transport, storage, and preparation at home is not included since it is similar for these processed plant-based food products). Results can be evaluated with different life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) methods. For the abstract we present the results for the Swiss ecological scarcity method. Other indicators will be added for the oral presentation.

Results and discussion

We show the reduction potential for the total environmental impacts of the daily nutrient intake. The base line is the environmental impact due to the necessary daily provision of nutrients with animal-based products. The reduction potential is investigated for the direct replacement with plant-based products (e.g. plant drinks instead of cow milk, planted burgers instead of meat burgers).

Proteins can be replaced very efficiently with several plant-based products and reductions of up to 90% for the environmental impacts can be achieved. It is more difficult to replace vitamin B12, which seems to be only possible with plant-based alternatives with added vitamin B12. For calcium and iron plant-based alternatives are good options too.

The number of servings necessary to provide the daily amount of nutrients is shown in Table 2. Milk and hard cheese are the only food items providing the necessary calcium with less than 5 servings a day. Milk alternatives can be a good option. Calcium supplements e.g. in milk alternatives might be an environmentally friendly way to meet the daily demands.

Conclusion

Plant based proteins are often an eco-efficient means for providing the necessary daily nutrients. A possible obstacle is the number of portions necessary to achieve a certain nutrient input.

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