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Commentary: Add more plants, and less meat to your meals. Here’s why

Commentary: Add more plants, and less meat to your meals. Here’s why
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colourful vegan food
Plant-based foods can be delicious too (Photo: Unsplash/Roosa Kulju)

SINGAPORE: In recent years, more people have been adding more plants to their plate. And the growing awareness of the role of animal agriculture (using animals for meat, eggs and dairy) as a leading driver of global warming is part of the reason.

Animal agriculture, as Good Food Institute Director Bruce Friedrich points out in his TED talk, is incredibly inefficient: Even the most efficient animal, chickens, requires nine calories of feed to produce just one calorie of meat.

Using animals to produce food is a form of food waste. Those who believe in this cause may have cut their meat intake in a move to tackle the food wastage problem.

The treatment of animals constitutes another reason some people are increasing their consumption of plant foods. Thanks to the Internet, the closed doors of the meat, dairy, and egg production facilities have opened to expose the suffering of the animals trapped in this system.

As important as environment and animal welfare issues are, health may be the primary motivation driving this shift towards plant-based foods.

Vegan Salad Bowl
(Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash)

Research demonstrates how eating plants can boost our health by raising antioxidant levels, lowering weight and cholesterol, and reducing risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and dementia.

Celebrities and athletes endorsing and experimenting with plant-based foods also makes it a trendy choice, especially among young people.

Whatever the reason, it’s encouraging to see people around the world taking steps on this path to healthier living and a greener planet. But more should consider changing to a more plant-based and less meat diet, as it could also help them fulfil their roles as responsible citizens of the world.

MORE PLANTS ON OUR PLATES TO SLOW CLIMATE CHANGE

Most people think of plant-based eating as strictly a binary choice. Either you are an all-in vegan and never touch any foods from animals, or you eat meat, eggs and dairy in every meal.

In reality, people’s diet choices range along a wide continuum. For example, “welfarists” look for food from animals whose lives are at least slightly better than those of their peers on factory farms; for instance, welfarists might eat cage-free chicken eggs.

Further along the continuum are “reducetarians” who are committed to eat less meat, eggs, and dairy in every meal. For instance at an Economy Rice stall, they may choose two vegetables and one meat or egg, instead of one vegetable, one meat and one egg. They may even go plant-based one day a week.

Economic rice
Food displayed at an economic rice stall in Singapore. (Photo: Khoo Bee Khim)

“Flexitarian” represents another stop along the diet continuum. This group usually eats plant-based meals, but not always. For instance, every Sunday, they take some of their grandfather’s famous oyster porridge.

Regardless of where one is in the continuum of animal-based food consumption, just the act of reducing meat contributes to the changes we need to slow climate change.

Flexitarian diets offer perhaps the best current destination for many people’s food journey. A recent study published in the journal Nature explained that people shifting to a flexitarian diet could hold climate change below 2 degrees Celsius by halving greenhouse gas emissions from livestock.

MAKING SINGAPORE FLEXITARIAN-FRIENDLY

What can be done to make Singapore an easier place to be flexitarian? Protein is one of people’s big concerns. Fortunately, there has been an explosion of innovation within the alternative protein space.

In addition to new products made from plants and fungi, food scientists are now even growing meat from cells rather than entire animals, and have already succeeded in producing the first “clean meat”, or lab-grown burgers.

TP future impossible burger 2 (credit impossible foods)
Vegetarian, but tastes like meat (Photo: Impossible Foods)

In Singapore, food manufacturing incubator, Innovate360, provides start-ups with the training, facilities, and support to bring more sustainable products to market. This comes on the heels of National University of Singapore’s recent launch of a new S$110 million dollar laboratory to develop plant-based versions of satay and other favourite foods.

These efforts to develop alternatives to animal-based foods will provide more plant-based food options for Singaporeans.

Obtaining our food without the involvement of animals also avoids possible contamination and bacteria from animals’ bodily processes, such as excretion, that can cause health problems. This means that lab-grown meat is cleaner than meat from slaughtered animals.

While some meat alternatives are currently offered at premium prices, as the technology matures and production scales, prices should fall to match those of traditionally grown animal foods.

Additionally, many plant-based foods are very reasonably priced. There is already a wide range of these affordable, easy to find plant-based options in Singapore. Local fruits and vegetables, tofu, tempeh, and other legume based foods, such as peanuts, and grains, such as oats and brown rice, are all examples of these foods.

EVEN MORE DELICIOUS PLANT FOODS ARE COMING

To help Singaporeans eat less meat, Singapore Health Promotion Board's (HPB) use of subsidies to promote healthier eating can be further extended.

Many still fall short of HPB’s recommendation of two daily servings each of fruits and vegetables. According to the National Nutrition Survey, which was last done in 2010, only one in four adult Singapore residents met the Dietary Guidelines.

vegan tofu tempeh
Tofu and tempeh are some easy to find plant-based options in Singapore. (Photo: Unsplash/Chelsea London Phillips)

Increasing subsidies at the wholesale or retail levels could support HPB’s efforts to boost consumption of these vital foods. In other words, people need carrots to eat more carrots.

As a country that prides itself on our discerning palate and vibrant food culture, Singapore is a place where boosting the availability of tasty plant-based options takes on special significance.

Fortunately, HPB provides a model for innovation, in the form of a previous initiative which trained chefs in hawker centres and restaurants to prepare healthier foods, such as cooking with less oil. A part of this capacity-building programme was a certification scheme that helped consumers identify stalls with healthier, yet tasty, options.

A similar approach merits consideration for expanding the plant-based foods space: A concerted training programme that helps chefs across Singapore expand their menus’ selection of delicious plant-based dishes that taste better and remain faithful to our culinary traditions.

The global rise of fast food and food delivery is testament to just how much consumers value convenience, and if plant-based foods are to compete with other options in Singapore, they need to be just as convenient as their animal-based alternatives.

To help Singaporeans quickly and easily sink their teeth into delicious and healthy options, a certification scheme could be paired with a culinary programme, heightening the visibility of eateries which take pride in serving sustainable and healthy food.

Photo of food options by Health Promotion Board
A display of healthier food options. (Photo: Facebook/Health Promotion Board)

Portugal provides an example of government action to make life easier for those who choose to go vegan by making it compulsory for schools and hospitals to provide plant-based options.

In Ghent, Belgium, plant-based eating is especially encouraged every Thursday, and free vegetarian and vegan cooking workshops are provided for students, teachers and parents.

IMPROVING HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT

The suggestions outlined above are ambitious, no doubt, but the payoffs from promoting flexitarian or less meat diet are equally appetising.

An up to a whopping US$31 trillion dollars by 2050 was the savings estimated by Oxford University researchers in terms of improved health and environmental protection of a global shift towards plant-based diets.

After all, each life is precious, and each healthier person means a happier person with a happier family. Change seldom feels easy, but putting more plants on our plate just feels right.

It’s entirely possible that promoting flexitarian options here would have effects far beyond Singapore’s borders. We have the infrastructure, talent and drive to pioneer models of the future of food that could play a crucial role in leading others towards a greener and healthier tomorrow.

Dr George Jacobs is long-time president of the Vegetarian Society in Singapore. Peter Lewis is a recent graduate of Yale-NUS College and now works with Karana, a plant-based foods start-up.

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