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Are plant- based proteins actually more sustainable?

Canada’s new Food Guide and guidelines were released on January 22nd, 2019 and there were some pretty big shifts in recommendations compared to the 2007 guide. The revisions of the food guide have been underway for quite some time so there was a lot of excitement from industry, health professionals and the public to see the revised version including this #yyc blogger!

One of the main changes is that the new food guide promotes plant based proteins. The food guide now has a “recommended proteins” category instead of Meat and Alternatives. There is also no longer a “milk products” category and milk as well as milk alternatives (like soy) have been included in the protein food group. In the guide the protein foods listed include “lentils, legumes, lean meats, fish, nuts, nut butters, eggs, unsweetened milk, yogurt, cheese, tofu and fortified soy beverages.” It’s also interesting to note this does not include other beverages like almond, rice or coconut beverage. These drinks are quite low in protein in comparison to soy or cow’s milk.

Can Plant Based Eating Make an Eco Impact?

You may have read that plant based eating (vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian) can “save the planet” but is this really true? Is a plant based diet actually more sustainable and does it have less of an environmental impact? In 2010 the Food and Agricultural Organizations (FAO) stated that “sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.” (1)  Let’s assess if a plant based diet meets this criteria!

Energy consumption of Vegetarian vs. Non-Vegetarian Diets

In the research study “Sustainability of plant-based diets: back to the future” by J Sabate and S Soret published in The American journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2014, the researchers compared the energy outputs of both plant based and animal protein production. They found that “agricultural inputs required for producing the non-vegetarian diet were 2.9 times more water, 2.5 times more primary energy, 13 times more fertilizer, and 1.4 times more pesticides than for the vegetarian diet.” (2) The research does support that eating a vegetarian (plant-based) diet will reduce our global energy consumption.

Beyond the energy use, meat production also has a much higher environmental impact in relation to freshwater use, amount of land required, and waste products generated. “The evidence suggests wide-scale adoption of a plant-based diet would reduce human impact on the environment and improve some of our most serious environmental problems such as climate change and fresh water scarcity.” (4) The meat that has the most environmental impact includes lamb and beef. The lowest on the list is chicken and turkey.

Non-Vegetarian Lower Impact Options

I get it, you might be thinking, but I just CAN’T give up meat. It’s worth exploring if there is any difference in environmental impact if you choose to eat grass fed beef vs. grain fed beef. There is some good news! Grass fed animals have less environmental impact than grain fed. Grass fed beef is available in Calgary grocery stores or available to order direct from the local farms in the surrounding area. One barrier to consumption is that grass fed beef does come with a larger price tag than grain fed meats but if you budget well and shop sales you can likely make the switch to grass fed beef.

What about the Alberta Beef Industry?

The one barrier or argument that I’ve heard from people as to why they couldn’t switch to more plant-based protein is that Alberta beef is part of our history, our pride and it’s been a way of life for many people in our Province. Which is absolutely a valid point because we do have a huge industry in Alberta where many people make their living from raising livestock. A more realistic approach for some Albertans may be to use a flexitarian approach replacing some meat proteins with plant based options but not fully converting to a vegetarian diet or using more grass fed beef in replace of grain fed beef.

Pulse Industry in Canada

It’s also important to look at Canada’s agricultural industry as a whole.
According to the 2011 Census of Agriculture, pulses represented approximately 6% of field crop area in Canada in 2011 and Alberta accounted for close to 19% of this total production. Pulse production in Canada accounted for $1.5 billion in national farm cash receipts.(6) Most of the pulses were exported and in 2011 Canada was a worldwide leader in production of lentils and dry peas. (6)

What are other Calgarians saying about plant based eating:

Q. Are you going to make the switch to more plant based proteins?

” Not at all. I will continue my meal practice as usual. Whole food in moderation is the key for me. I choose to buy my meat protein from environmentally sustainable and humane source. Yes, the price is much higher, but I know I support local farm and sustainable farming. They let their animal roam and their animal are grass-fed, no use of antibiotic when not warranted, and treat animal with respect and care.

Sue P – local Calgary resident

“I think it is a good idea for health reasons. I haven’t really thought about the environmental impact. I do plan to and I already have. I have a lentil based meal usually once a week. I Google different ways to use lentils and so far the results have been delicious. I like buying and using lentils too because it supports Canadian industry (51% of global lentil production happens in Canada!!)”

Mary R – local Calgary resident

Will you make the change? Leave a comment below let me know!

If you are looking to make a switch to eating more plant based proteins check out a great blog post: “How to Cook Beans 4 of 4 part cooking series.”


  1. Food and Agricultural Organizations:
  2. Sustainability of plant-based diets: back to the future, J Sabate, S Soret – The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2014
  3. Public views of the benefits and barriers to the consumption of a plant-based diet EJ Lea, D Crawford, A Worsley – European journal of clinical nutrition, 2006.
  4. Reducing the environmental impact of dietary choice: perspectives from a behavioural and social change approach A Joyce, S Dixon, J Comfort, J Hallett environmental and public health, 2012
  5. Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: food and agriculture S Friel, AD Dangour, T Garnett, K Lock, Z Chalabi
  6. Pulses in Canada Statistics Canada

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