Category Archives: Reading Discussion Groups

Policy Implications for Food Manufacturing – Part 2

BSUFN are currently hosting an informal series of discussions on the topic of ‘how much has food research changed in the past 40 years?‘ For each discussion a reading is suggested by one of BSUFN’s members. The second of the discussion groups will meet on Monday the 18th of January, from 12:30 to 14:00 at the University of Sussex, Fulton Building room 111.

The suggested reading for the upcoming discussion group is from: Joanna Blythman (2015) Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Fourth Estate, London. Part I, Chapters 1 to 5 are recommended as reading to inform discussion, although the reading is not essential to join the discussion group, come along regardless of your background knowledge or prior preparation.

 

Peter Senker, one of BSUFN’s members and a member of the steering group, has prepared some notes based on his thoughts having read Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This. He presents a review of some key points about food manufacturing and processing from the book before making some suggestions for policy implications.

Peter’s thoughts are shared in two posts, the second of which is below. The first post (available here) reviewed the book and the goals of food manufacturers. The post below follows directly on from that so please read the previous post first if you haven’t already.

 

Some Notes on the Policy Implications following Review of Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets

Peter Senker

FOOD MANUFACTURERS’ STRATEGIES FOR SELLING HUGE QUANTITIES OF THEIR PRODUCTS

Packaged food manufacturers have three principal linked strategies for marketing the vast quantities of food they produce.

  1. They spend vast quantities of money promoting the taste and nutritional benefits of the food they produce through advertising in television, in the press, and through promotion in supermarkets, and more recently in social media.
  2. Scientific knowledge does not have much direct influence on markets for packaged foods. The principal influence of scientific knowledge (mainly about the nutritional and toxic qualities of food) is exerted through regulatory bodies set up by governments and international organisations. Food manufacturers and the organisations which represent them devote a lot of effort to securing representation on such bodies. They have been highly successful in influencing, and indeed dominating the deliberations and findings of such bodies, both in the UK and worldwide. For example, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was established in 2002 to ensure that foodstuffs regulations were harmonized throughout the European Union to ensure “free and unhindered competition”. EFSA’s President was also a member of the Board of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). ILSI’s 62 corporate members include Danone, Kellogg, Nestlé’s McDonald’s Europe, and Unilever. ILSI is entirely funded and operated by corporations and carries out numerous scientific studies for the EU on subjects such as consumer exposure to contaminants. (George, 2015, pages 40-45)
  3. Packaged food manufacturers are very aware that widespread public awareness of the details of their operations could damage their marketing and lobbying efforts. They try hard to conceal such details from the public –and from investigative journalists such as Joanna Blythman.

DISCUSSION

Food processing companies are generally very successful in complying with the principal requirements of the legislative framework within which they work – in particular the requirement to increase the revenues gained by their shareholders; and with the principal societal and economic norms which should guide their activities – in particular the requirements to contribute to economic growth and to innovation . But Blythman in her book has demonstrated clearly that, in several respects, the food they produce in such enormous quantities often has properties such as toxicity and dangers to the health of their consumers. This dichotomy raises questions such as

  1. Are the legislative requirements and social and economic norms which affect food processing internally consistent? and if not
  2. Are internal inconsistencies in these norms confined to their effects on food processing firms or are they more widely applicable to other sectors of the food industry or even to the world economy in general?
  3. Are there possibilities that these norms could be improved, for the benefit, for example, of consumers?

These are such huge questions that I propose to confine myself mainly to comments related to question 1.

The companies which operate in the packaged food industry are typical of companies which control an increasing proportion of the world’s economic output, insofar as their principal motivation is to increase the profits which accrue to their shareholders. Piketty’s detailed analysis leads to the conclusion that

capital’s share of income increased in most rich countries between 1970 and 2010…this trend is consistent with …an increase in capital’s bargaining power vis-a-vis labour over the past few decades, which have seen increased mobility of capital and heightened competition between states eager to attract investments…..it is also possible that this will continue to be the case in future” (Piketty, 2014.).

To increase their profits, as we have seen, processed food companies use production methods which enable them to produce vast quantities of food at very low cost per unit. Their production processes put extreme stress on the ingredients they use, so the companies spend enormous efforts and resources continuously to find and use new ingredients which will tolerate those extreme stresses without breaking down . Some of the changing mixes of ingredients they use have deleterious effects on the nutritional, toxicity and flavour of the products they produce. In addition, nutritional science is continually producing new findings about the toxicity and nutritional qualities of this increasing number and variety of ingredients. In order to restrain regulatory bodies set up by governments and international organisations from forcing them to abandon the use of cheap novel ingredients which may well have toxic and health damaging properties, food processing companies make strenuous and highly successful efforts to ensure that their representatives dominate the proceedings of those bodies. Company representatives restrain these bodies from making regulations against the interests of their companies in making profits. Governments of individual states encourage this. An important motivation is to prevent their acquisition of a reputation for strict regulation which could impair a state’s ability to retain and attract the operations of the food processing countries with the employment and contribution to economic output which they offer.

In order to achieve the profits that companies work so hard to achieve, they not only have to produce many millions of packets of processed food at very low cost per unit, they also have to persuade millions of customers to buy them. This is facilitated by the ready availability of mass media of communications –such as newspapers, television and social media –whose profitability is highly dependent on their willingness to convey messages to consumers at low cost that those products are nutritious and tasty. Those messages are reinforced by messages on the packages which contain the products, millions of which are distributed mainly via supermarkets. The British Government’s current policies of reducing the scope of the BBC can be seen as part of a strategy of encouraging mass communications media to concentrate their efforts on the role of stimulating economic growth, as opposed to wasting their efforts on entertaining and informing the public

Since they started nearly two hundred years ago, packaged food manufacturing companies and corporations have been highly innovative and ingenious in deploying and developing the strategies outlined above. In her brilliant book, Joanna Blythman has shown, in my view conclusively, that these strategies are unlikely ever to lead to those companies producing nutritious and tasty food. On balance, her work indicates that the food they produce is likely to remain poor in nutritional qualities and, indeed, often toxic. But corporate policies and products have been shaped by the requirements placed on the companies by most governments throughout the world to strive to increase the profits attributable to their shareholders. That the products they produce and sell are generally not very nutritious –and, indeed, often harmful to consumers’ health and/or toxic, is not of great interest to their producers. Nor is it of much interest to the companies that the agricultural and   food production processes involved in making products may often be harmful to the environment.

Joanna Blythman has shown conclusively that the nutritional qualities and taste most packaged foods offer to their consumers are often appalling. But in the present dominant world legislative, social and economic environment, the behaviour of food processing companies is highly rational. In Britain, their goals coincide closely with the British government’s goals for the industry. Defra wants to “promote a British brand, grow exports, improve skills, attract high-flyers and harness data and technology so that the industry can innovate and create jobs.” The British Government is “hugely ambitious for the future of food and farming and its potential to drive growth– that’s why we are bringing together industry to set out a vision for the future with a long-term plan to grow more, buy more and sell more British food”. (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 2015)

I have suggested that:

Multinational corporations and protesters against their policies are both rational, but corporations and protesters are operating under different logics. Disputes mainly arise because the logic under which multinational corporations operate –the search for profits –dictates that they seek to develop and exploit the largest markets…… (Senker, 2000)

And Susan George (2015, page155) concludes that Transnational Corporations “are the most powerful collective force in the world today, far outdistancing governments that are more often than not in their pockets anyway”.

It is a far higher priority for governments to attract and retain employment and gain economic growth from the operations of dynamic and innovative corporations, and to ensure that the shareholders’ of those corporations become richer, than to seek to ensure that their populations eat healthy nutritious foods.

Despite the strenuous noble efforts of highly competent researchers and investigative journalists such as Joanna Blythman and Nora McKeon, food processing companies’ priorities are unlikely to change any time soon.

References

George, S., 2015 Shadow Sovereigns: How Global Corporations are Seizing Power, Polity, Cambridge

Senker, P.2000, A Dynamic Perspective on Technology, Economic Inequality and Development, in Wyatt, S, et al. Editors, Technology and In/equality, Routledge, London, page 215

Piketty, T., 2014, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, page 221.

Industry kick-starts work on Great British Food and Farming Plan, 2015, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 16 July.

Policy Implications for Food Manufacturing – Part 1

BSUFN are currently hosting an informal series of discussions on the topic of ‘how much has food research changed in the past 40 years?‘ For each discussion a reading is suggested by one of BSUFN’s members. The second of the discussion groups will meet on Monday the 18th of January, from 12:30 to 14:00 at the University of Sussex, Fulton Building room 111.

The suggested reading for the upcoming discussion group is from: Joanna Blythman (2015) Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Fourth Estate, London. Part I, Chapters 1 to 5 are recommended as reading to inform discussion, although the reading is not essential to join the discussion group, come along regardless of your background knowledge or prior preparation.

Peter Senker, one of BSUFN’s members and a member of the steering group, has prepared some notes based on his thoughts having read Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This. He presents a review of some key points about food manufacturing and processing from the book before making some suggestions for policy implications. Peter’s thoughts will be shared in two posts over the next two weeks prior to the discussion group meeting on the 18th of January. The first of these posts is shared below and considers the goals of food manufacturers.

Peter Senker

Some Notes on the Policy Implications following Review of Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets

Joanna Blythman’s book “Swallow This” is a study of the quality of the food produced by food manufacturers. Extensive detailed research led her to conclude that “the defining characteristics of this industry’s products” are “food and drink that is sweet, oily, .old, flavoured, coloured, watery, tricky and packed” …. And “we are led to believe that what goes on in food factories is essentially the same as home cooking only scaled up” ( page 10). She suggests that her book provides extensive evidence that any such perception is self-serving and misleading. Because more people are continually increasing consumption of foods mass-produced in factories “A growing number of us are simultaneously overfed and undernourished” (page 12). Food manufacturers combine sugar, processed fat and salt in their most quickly digested forms, and this combination may well be addictive. These foods contain chemicals with known toxic properties, and the industry has a long history of defending its use of controversial ingredients such as partially hydrogenated oils. There is substantial evidence that consumption of processed food could be a significant cause use of obesity, chronic disease and the rise in reported food allergies (page 13).

The public policy implications of this book are very important. So first I outline the goals of the companies which dominate the industry. I then outline the principal problems they face in attaining those goals. To secure those goals, they have to sell huge quantities of their products, so I outline their strategies for achieving this. I follow this with a discussion of the priority which food processing companies assign to the production of nutritious tasty food relative to the priorities assigned to other goals. I conclude by assessing the extent to which pressures on food manufacturers to improve the quality of the food they produce are likely to be successful in the future.

COMPANY GOALS

These companies and corporations comply with energy, intelligence and enthusiasm to the principal legislative framework which applies to them. In particular, company legislation insists that their principal aim should be to increase the revenue which accrues to their shareholders. In addition, they are highly successful in meeting the principal norms for companies and corporations set by the electorate and politicians, insofar as they make substantial contributions to economic growth, and to innovation.

PRINCIPAL PROBLEMS FACED BY COMPANIES IN SECURING THEIR GOALS

Producing large quantities of packaged food at low cost

In order to secure large profits, the companies need to have a large quantity of products to sell, each item having cost them the minimum amount to produce, package and distribute to customers. Cost minimisation involves processes such as frying at high temperatures using oils which will cope with such temperatures and which can be used as many times as possible without breaking down. (Page 127). Various sorts of additives are used to economise on oil use. The extreme heat and length of time needed to fry some popular foods creates health hazards.

Selling large quantities of packaged food

Food deteriorates the longer it takes between the time when it is picked or harvested and the time when the consumer eats it. Lengthening shelf life is a major goal of packaged food companies because it can take a time to sell large quantities of packaged foods to consumers spread over wide geographical areas.

The drive to make and sell large quantities of products quickly and cheaply and to keep these products “fresh” for a long time are only some of the factors which make packaged food producers continue to use new cheap ingredients which can help them to fulfil such objectives. They are aided in these endeavours by numerous suppliers of a wide variety of ingredients, few of which are used in domestic cookery.

The use of new ingredients presents packaged food producers with a number of problems, of which I only have space in these notes to consider a few. Changes in ingredients affect the taste, nutritional and health qualities of food and its texture. And through their own testing procedures , and from outside advice and sometimes legislation, food manufacturers often reach the conclusion that many of these changes are either adverse or likely to be adverse. Their responses to such information are often to continually take some ingredients out of the food they manufacture, and/or to add or substitute other new ingredients. The rate of innovation (if it could be measured) is indeed most impressive. But, as Blythman suggests, the net result of these change quality of the food which is ingested by its consumers is generally poor or unknown, in terms of taste, texture, nutritional qualities, health and safety.

The quality of packaged food

A central problem in considering the quality of food is that it is multi-dimensional. It includes taste and texture which are both matters of individual tastes and preferences; and also nutritional qualities which can, in principle, be measured more objectively, but are often extremely difficult to measure. Just as important, the science of nutrition is developing continually. As science develops, assessment of the nutritional value (or harm) caused by various food ingredients change. For example, developments in nutritional and allied sciences have led to important changes in scientific knowledge about the relative damage to human health caused by eating various types of fats; and to the extent of damage to health caused by ingesting various type of sugar. Food manufacturers have to try to cope with such developments in scientific knowledge. After food manufacturers have incorporates new ingredients into their products, they often have to cope with the effects of the diffusion of the rapidly developing and changing scientific knowledge about the nutritional qualities of all the ingredients they use.

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The second post from Peter Senker in this series of thoughts about the policy implcations of food manufacturing and Joanna Blythman’s book Swallow This will be shared next week on Monday the 11th of January 206.

How Much has Food Research Changed in the Past 40 Years? New Event Announced

Food systems have seen many changes, innovations, and challenges during the past 40 years. Research on food-related issues has responded to changing food systems and demands through developing new areas of inquiry, new methods, and new forms of interactions with food systems.

BSUFN are hosting a short series of discussion groups on the topic of changes in food research over the past 40 years. These discussions are intended to provoke critical analysis of changing food research priorities by asking whether the food-related issues under investigation have really changed.

To inform the discussion we will draw on two readings, listed below.

‘Food Aid?…Or Weapon?’, Chapter 8, pages 192-213 in: Susan George (1976) How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger, Penguin

‘Food governance: a rapid historical review’, Chapter 1, pages 11-30, in: Nora McKeon (2015) Food Security Governance: Empowering communities, regulating corporations, Routledge

There are many other texts which are highly relevant to this topic and it is not necessary for you to read these two suggested chapters in order to join the discussion. No prior knowledge or preparation is required so please join us if you are interested in the topic. If there are other readings you would like to suggest please let us know and we will be able to propose them for follow-up discussions in January.

The discussions will be held on the following dates and we will organise more follow-up discussions should there be interest and additional readings suggested.

Monday the 14th of December 2015 – 12:30 to 14:00 – Fulton Building room 102, University of Sussex campus, Falmer, Brighton

Monday the 18th of January 2016 – 12:30 to 14:00 – Fulton Building room 111, University of Sussex campus, Falmer, Brighton

If you are unable to attend either of these discussions but you would like to contribute your thoughts on this topic, please feel free to e-mail us (food.network@sussex.ac.uk) your ideas on comment using the box below.

There is no need to register your attendance for the discussion groups, just come along and join the conversation. As the groups will be held during lunchtime, please feel free to bring your lunch with you.

 

Discussion on Transitions to Sustainability in Food Systems

In the last of the current series of reading discussion groups we discussed the idea of transitions to sustainability within the food system. This was based on reading: Hinrichs, C.C. (2014) Transitions to sustainability: a change in thinking about food systems change?, Agriculture and Human Values, which is available here.

  • We discussed the role of power relationships. The paper is presented as A-political and while acknowledging the existence of politics and power within the food system, it doesn’t directly address this.
  • When making comments about agency, the paper seems to undercut these by taking the role of agency out of the application of the Social Practices Approach.
  • A number of comments made by Hinrichs were discussed as being particularly positive. There was agreement that it is positive to think in terms of horizontalism and consider the wider demographic, as the paper also recommends. Additionally, recognising that those involved in the food systems sector may have something to contribute to the discussions surrounding transitions to sustainability was also seen as useful.
  • However, it was noted that the paper ostensibly takes a negative stance towards the posibility of change and transition in the food system. The paper suggests that we shouldn’t expect change to occur very quickly due to path-dependencies within the food system. Although the discussion considered this to be a negative approach to transitions to sustainability, other examples were identified which supported the arguement that transitions are slow or never reach the landscape-level as described by the Multi-Level Perspective in the paper.
  • For example, the production and consumption of organic food was niche in the post-war years, according to studies using the related framework of Strategic Niche Management. Organic production began as experiments but became much more recognised within the UK food system as a response to monoculture. Despite this increase in awareness over several decades, it hasn’t led to overall change in production practices or consumer choices.
  • We also discussed the concept of transition towns using the local town of Lewes as an example. Here, the local food market has made efforts to counter the idea that it is more expensive to buy local and organic produce by doing price comparisons with supermarkets and holding taste tests. Despite the efforts, these transitions to organic, locally produced foods are remaining within a niche and the only customers or active people within the change are those who are already concerned about the issues. The rest of the community is not making a transition away from buying imported, mass-produced goods in supermarkets, even though they live within a transition town.
  • We also discussed the example where a transition has occurred relatively quickly and without any particular conscious effort to transition. Harvey Ells (University of Brighton and City University, London) has done research which has shown that the increase in shopping in budget supermarkets has resulted in people cooking more and eating less ready-prepared, processed food.
  • We also discussed the concept of transitions to sustainability in relation to emerging markets such as China and countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Adrian Ely (Univeristy of Sussex) described his ongoing research in China which is considering two different approaches to transitions. One approach is reliant on mechanised agriculture, giving modified feed to pigs to make meat production cheaper. The other approach is a grassroots, transitions town style, movement towards organic farming to feed the urban middle-class.
  • We also discussed the role of grassroots action in emerging markets. Typically grassroots action is about contesting models of progress and trying to keep food production the same through local, agro-ecological processes. This form of grassroots action is resisting the enforced new models of the food systems which is moving towards increased processed food and a globalised system. Transitions thinking doesn’t consider different conceptualisations of progress or contestation.
  • Discussions made us question whether we are in fact all part of a slow transition which we can’t recognise now because we are part of it. We discussed whether the concept of transitions to sustainability outlined in the paper could help us to identify if and when a transition is taking place. We agreed that the concept could maybe help us to understand change in thinking about how things have happened in the past, but the concept is less helpful in creating change faster or planning for the future.

GM and Golden Rice Discussion

For the fourth in our current series of reading discussion groups we have been discussing genetically modified (GM) crops and Golden Rice. This was based on two sections, pages 267-277, in the chapter titled ‘GM: Feeding people or factory farms’ in Farmageddon:? The True Cost of Cheap Meat, by Lymbery, P. and Oakeshott, I. (2014). There was also a second, alternative reading for this discussion for those who could not access the book: Wield, D., Chataway, J., and Bolo, M. (2010) Issues in the Political Economy of Agricultural Biotechnology, Journal of Agrarian Change. This reading is available here.

This post gives a summary of the points we discussed regarding GM crops.

  • There are myths of technology in the food system which the food industry share to keep themselves in business.
  • The contemporary capitalist system within the global food system is dysfunctional. However, democracy is active within some sectors of the food system, particularly evidenced through the food sovereignty movement.
  • Despite the food industry dominating influence on food policy and governance, civil society movements are having an impact at local, national, and international scales. For example, La Via Campesina have strengths in linking north and south. There is increasingly a consumer demand for organic, or alternative ‘healthier’ options, so the food industry has to respond.
  • However, most GM crops are fed to livestock. When people get weathy they want meat, but they wouldn’t want it as quickly if they weren’t being sold it at low prices by multi-national fast food retailers, for example Mac Donalds. The rapid change in diets with increased economic capacity increases the amount of livestock and therefore demand for GM to feed livestock.
  • Small farmers are producing enough for themselves and selling some in the market, making them a small business. Neo-liberalism is powerful because it pays.
  • Golden Rice – has the addition of betacarotenes to treat Vitamin A deficiency. The chapter in Farmageddon argues: there is a lack of understanding that there are other nutrients needed to absorb Vitamin A so Golden Rice doesn’t necessarily treat Vitamin A deficiency; providing Vitmain A in this source stops people looking for other sources of vitamins and therefore they can become deficient in other nutrients; there is a cheaper option of giving supplements to treat nutrient deficiency. Additionally, Golden Rice has been developed in the wrong variety of rice, not the variety which is most commonly eaten in local diets .
  • GM is private and for profit. The argument about GM is about models of development – pro-GM is about technology and anti-GM is about agro-ecology. An individual’s perspective on agro-food system as a whole determines their views on whether GM crops are appropriate. GM is a means to increase the industrialisation of the food system through monoculture and conforming. There is a sinlge model of the system, of farming, and of food produce.
  • There is an assuption in the private sector that the public sector will do research of the things that small-holder farmers need. GM crops which have benefitted poor societies are those which have reduced pesticide use and therefore costs of agro-chemical. However, pests develop resistance to the crops and eventually farmers experience the negative impacts of needing to use pesticides while also paying for the GM crop. Some GM crop varieities have traits which the farmers want such as those which farmers have been breeding into crops for generations, for example drought tolerance.
  • The food industry is mainly turning good food into rubbish.
  • Not going to get the best foods for people if the main reason you invent or develop them is for profit rather than human and environmental health.
  • There is a problem of GM science being highly secretive making it hard for the public and policy-makers to make a judgement on whether GM crops are appropriate.

Discussion of Energy Prices for Groundwater Extraction in Agriculture

This week we have been discussing The Effects of Energy Prices on Groundwater Extraction in Agriculture in the High Plains Aquifer by L. Pfeiffer and C_Y.C. Lin (2014) (available here) as part of the BSUFN series of reading discussion groups.

This reading falls under BSUFN’s special interest group (SIG) on the Global Food Nexus which considers the relationships between food, energy, water, and environment gloally.

This is a summary of the points we discussed:

  • Those of us attending the discussion group agreed that the paper makes a lot of assumptions and the research knew what findings it was going to find, so set out a way to obtain these findings. The questions which the paper didn’t ask or address at all are the questions which are most interesting and important.
  • The findings and conclusion of the research were obvious – it is common sense that any business in any sector would change their practices in response to changes in price of the necessary inputs (in this case the cost of energy to pump water for irrigation).
  • The paper didn’t present any recommendation from the findings and didn’t address whether there are particular policy choices which could limit the negative impact and/or increase the positive impact of energy price rises on food production. There was no consideration of formal or informal policy involved in the complex relationships of the food-energy-water-environment nexus, at international, nationa, state, or local scale.
  • The paper clearly states that the recharge of the groundwater aquifer is very low – much less water is being added to the aquifer through infiltration per year than is being extracted from wells for farming, domestic and industrial use. Although stating this clearly the paper doesn’t mention this being unsustainable in the medium- to long-term. As such, the paper overlooks another of the dynamics of producing water-intensive crops such as soya and alfalfa which are used as livestock feed. There is no questioning of the sustainability of the system in relation to water use, only in relation to energy prices.
  • The United States of America (USA) is the biggest grain exporter in the world so a change or reduction in exports could have a significant knock-on effect in other countries. For example, Saudi Arabia is an arid country so cannot produce as much grains as wetter areas. Saudia Arabia are ceasing wheat production and import much of their grains for consumption. Should the USA export less because of shifts in production patterns or reduced production due to energy prices, there could be significant stresses and feedbacks within the global food system.
  • The discussion then address dynamics of the global food system and economy. Very little food roduced actually gets traded, it is mostly consumed locally (except for predominantly dryland countries such as Saudi Arabia). There is a relationship between water extraction and trade which means that in some semi-arid areas it makes financial sense for the farmer to grow water intensive vegetables because of the higher price they will receive for their goods.
  • Conversation then moved away from the content of the paper under discussion to a more global consideration of the food nexus. In particular this included discussion of ways in which smallholder farmers in semi-arid Northern Ghana respond and adapt to reduced availability of water due to drought.
  • In general, those who contributed to the discussion felt that the paper had not gone far enough in considering the effects of energy price rises on groundwater extraction for irrigation. The global food nexus is much more complex and local action taken in Kansas (discussed in the paper) could contribute to an impact on the global food system. The global food nexus includes issues of policy, politics, ecoomics, and society, as well as food-energy-water-environment.

Plant Proteins and Human Nutrition Discussion

As part of BSUFN’s series of reading discussion groups we have been talking about human nutrition and plant proteins. Under our special interest group (SIG) theme Food Health and Education, a group of members met to discuss the 1994 paper ‘Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition’ by Young and Pellett (available here).

Our discussion of this topic took us through nutrition, health, food policy and economics, sustainability, and society. Below are some points raised during our disucssion.

  • Commonly used terminology to describe protein content in food stuffs is incorrect and misleading. Many foods are describes as having ‘incomplete’ proteins but in fact they have low levels of some amino acids which are increased to good ratio through combining food stuffs.
  • Vegetarianism and veganism can still provide more than sufficient dietary nutrition because there are proteins present in pulses, cereals, and vegetables. In a typical Western diet we consume more than enough protein.
  • Past medical advice regarding protein intake in children and adults was in places incorrect but still gets taught in medical schools. This has resulted in misleading public health messages being maintained long after health sciences have shown otherwise.
  • The food industry has a dominant role in determining food policy and advice.
  • Combining different food types, such as legumes and cereals, will provide sufficient amounts of the necessary amino acids. However, these combinations do not need to be consumed during the same meal and eating different types of food stuffs throughout the day is sufficient.
  • There is limited sustainability of the meat industry in its current state because of the amount of protein-rich feed required to raise livestock. For example, in much of Latin America, for every kilogram of beef produced cattle are fed ten kilograms of protein-rich feed. This feed is typically soya or similar food stuffs which could be eaten by humans. There are questions over the amount of land required for producing feed for livestock as well as the ethics of giving protein-rich food to cattle when over 800 million people globally go hungry every day.