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Roel Wijnants

How meat substitutes in your lasagne can help save the planet

National Meat Free Week, from 11 to 17 March, encourages us to choose the environmentally friendly option more often. But apart from preventing animal suffering, does eating less meat really make much difference? Three questions for Leiden Professor of Industrial Ecology Arnold Tukker.

Are weeks like this worth the effort?

‘Definitely. If we want to save the planet, we need to drastically change our habits, and this type of week helps raise awareness. Meat consumption takes an enormous toll on the environment. Almost half of our agricultural land is used to grow livestock feed; four kilos of maize are needed for one kilo of pork, for instance. If we all avoid meat for just one day per week, this will probably reduce the amount of agricultural land by 5%* already, correcting for the fact that land is still needed for your meat and milk replacements. You also save a lot of land that is in use as pasture. The agricultural land that has been freed up can then be turned into a nature reserve or a carbon sink that removes the CO2 from the atmosphere that is released when fossil fuels are burnt.

How else can we encourage people to change their ways?

‘By making meat substitutes much more of an easy option. It would be good if people were more aware of inspiring examples and a meat-free diet didn’t have such New Age connotations. I was in China for my work a while ago. Most restaurants there have excessive amounts of meat on the menu. But someone also took me to an amazing vegan restaurant. I barely noticed that there wasn’t any meat in my food. Hopefully, more Chinese will experience this too. Supermarkets should also make meat-free food the easy option. Why, for instance, do they use minced meat for lasagne ready meals? That could easily be replaced by a plant-based product, and consumers would barely notice. I myself could also eat less meat, and it would definitely help if a range of meat-free products were readily available.’

As Professor of Industrial Ecology and Director of the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML), you study how to make the economy more sustainable. How could this be achieved?

‘Our food system must at least be such that we produce and consume at a much more local level. Because now, for instance, to make livestock feed we take lots of phosphorus out of the ground in Brazil or Argentina, which then ends up in the surface water in the Netherlands. We study these global production flows at the CML. We build big databases that link global consumption to production so that we can see where the major leaks are in these flows and what could be made more sustainable with new technology or other consumption patterns. My colleague from the CML, Paul Behrens, recently used this database to demonstrate clearly in the renowned journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that reducing meat consumption to healthy proportions would be a massive win already, namely a huge reduction in our water, land and energy use. A sensible approach to meat really should be the default option.’

Image: Roel Wijnants
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* An earlier version of this article said 15% instead of 5%.

Vegetarian and vegan food at Leiden University

PURE, Leiden University’s sustainable catering concept is all about healthy, sustainable and naturally delicious food. This also means that lots of vegetarian products are available in our restaurants and cafés. Students and staff are encouraged to try vegetarian dishes: one of the daily specials is always vegetarian, and the chilli sin carne is cheaper than its meaty cousin. 

The range has increased since 2018 to include vegan options, including filled rolls, salads and snacks. Soy milk is also available for hot drinks. The V+ logo shows which products and dishes are vegan. 

Read more about the PURE concept

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