Israeli researchers: Be a vegetarian, save the world

They call this type of waste “opportunity food loss,” a term inspired by the “opportunity cost” concept in economics that refers to the cost of choosing a particular alternative over better options.

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March 26, 2018 23:20
2 minute read.
Israeli researchers: Be a vegetarian, save the world

Vegetables are seen in vegetarian restaurant "Green Cuisine" in Minsk, Belarus February 1, 2018. (photo credit: VASILY FEDOSENKO / REUTERS)

 
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A new study from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, suggests the world’s food resources would be far better utilized if we became vegetarians.

The study comes two weeks after the Leket Israel national food bank reported that Israel wastes one third of the food it produces. 

The biggest waste does not come from what we throw away, but from our dietary choices that result in the squandering of environmental resources, maintained lead author Dr. Alon Shepon, who worked in the lab of Prof. Ron Milo in Weizmann’s plant and environmental sciences department. The study was done with Prof. Gidon Eshel of New York State’s Bard College and Dr. Elad Noor of ETZ Zürich and published in the journal Proceedings of the [US] National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers found a novel way to define and quantify this second type of waste. They call it “opportunity food loss,” a term inspired by the “opportunity cost” concept in economics that refers to the cost of choosing a particular alternative over better options.

Opportunity food loss stems from using agricultural land to produce animal-based food instead of nutritionally comparable plant-based alternatives. The researchers reported that in the US alone, avoiding opportunity food loss – that is, replacing all animal-based items with edible crops for human consumption – would add enough food to feed 350 million more people – equivalent to the entire US population – with the same land resources.


“Our analysis has shown that favoring a plant-based diet can potentially yield more food than eliminating all the conventionally defined causes of food loss,” they stated.

The scientists compared the resources needed to produce five major categories of animal-based food – beef, pork, dairy, poultry and eggs – with the resources required to grow edible crops of similar nutritional value in terms of protein, calorie and micronutrients. They found that plant-based replacements could produce two to 20 times more protein per acre.

The most dramatic results were obtained for beef. The researchers compared it with a mix of crops – soya, potatoes, cane sugar, peanuts and garlic – that deliver a similar nutritional profile when taken together in the right proportions. The land area that could produce 100 grams of protein from these crops would yield only four grams of edible protein from beef. In other words, using agricultural land for producing beef instead of replacement crops results in an opportunity food loss of 96 grams – that is, a loss of 96% – per unit of land. This means that the potential gain from diverting agricultural land from beef to plant-based foods for human consumption would be enormous.

The estimated losses from failing to replace other animal-based foods with nutritionally similar crops were also huge: 90% for pork, 75% for dairy, 50% for poultry and 40% for eggs – higher than all conventional food losses combined. “Opportunity food loss must be taken into account if we want to make dietary choices enhancing global food security,” Milo concluded.

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