Interlinked dairy and beef production and its influence on a sustainable and healthy diet for the EU
Internship Laura van de Kar
Over the past few months Laura has been working with Optimeal to find a sustainable, healthy and feasible diet for the EU, focusing on the influence of dairy products and beef. This final year work placement study was for her Master’s degree in Sustainable Development at Utrecht University.
Much research is being carried out to find a better diet, with much to be gained in terms of both health and environmental impact. Optimisation is a valuable tool for including both the nutritional value and the environmental scores of food products in the same assessment. It is a much used method, recent examples being the Menu for Tomorrow for the Netherlands and Eating for 2 Degrees for the UK, but there are also studies with an international scope. The recommendations resulting from such studies tend to be in agreement: eat more vegetables, fish, whole grains, nuts and pulses, and less meat. However, this still takes account of the fact that production of certain foods is interlinked: dairy cows produce milk, but at the end of their productive lives they are slaughtered for beef, and veal production is also closely linked to the dairy industry. In her research, Laura examined this link and found that if we were to stop eating beef altogether, we could not eat any dairy produce, and if we want dairy products, we will also have to eat some beef.
Carbon footprint target
The study included setting CO2 emission reduction targets for European food consumption. Based on EU targets, Laura calculated that the required reduction from food consumption for 2030 is 24%.
Link between milk and beef
To make the link between dairy and beef in the diet it was first necessary to determine a production ratio: European data indicate that 1 kg of beef is produced for every 46 kg of dairy produce. In the most realistic, future-proof diet (see figure), the average European will consume 460 g of dairy products per day, but also 10 g beef from dairy cows. This diet provides the recommended daily nutrient intake as well as meeting the CO2 reduction target. It also satisfies the standard recommendation for sustainable, healthy diets: consumption of fish, vegetable and pulses has to increase, while meat consumption must be drastically reduced. However, this study also illustrates the importance of looking at all aspects of food production and throws new light on beef consumption. Beef from dairy cows, for example, has a significantly lower carbon footprint (-40%) than meat from beef cattle, which could give a whole new twist to meat consumption. Similar studies of other forms of interlinked production (e.g. eggs and chicken meat) may also throw up useful information.