Over the past few years, anyone eating out or shopping at a local supermarket will have noticed that restaurants, cafes, and retailers have radically expanded the number of plant-based options available to their customers.
This is a market response to a steep increase in the number of Europeans who identify as flexitarian, vegetarian, or vegan. Even beyond those specific groups, many consumers are choosing to purchase less meat. This can be due to a range of reasons – concern for animal welfare, improving personal health, helping to combat climate change, or simply to save money.
“The current options for people choosing not to eat meat are a far cry from a limited single vegetarian dish on a menu that might have been the case a decade ago,” Alessandro Tschirkov, from leading health and wellness company Herbalife tells The Parliament. “Changes in eating habits are essentially personal choices, but the cumulative impact of those individual decisions has the potential to be enormously important to Europe as a whole.”
The data supports Tschirkov’s view that the move to plant-based diets can play an important role in delivering a wider set of environmental benefits to Europe. One-third of all global greenhouse gas emissions stem from the food chain and some studies indicate that Europe’s meat and dairy production generates more greenhouse gases than all the bloc’s cars and vans combined. As the EU accelerates efforts to achieve its legally binding target of achieving net-zero by 2050, it is clear that changes to agriculture and food production simply have to be an integral part of the solution.
It is a point that is not lost on European policymakers. MEP Tom Vandenkendelaere told The Parliament that action is needed to support consumer choice and deliver on Europe’s net zero ambitions.
“A balanced diet is key not only for people’s health but also for the planet’s biodiversity as it can help to reduce our emission footprint,” he explains. “This means we need to shift the focus to stimulating the growth of new protein-rich crops.”
Supporting producers who are helping consumers reduce the amount of meat that they consume is one powerful tool that policymakers have at their disposal. Beef production emits nearly 50kg of CO2 per 100g of protein, whereas pulses produce less than a kilogram. Beyond greenhouse gases, plant-based proteins also require fewer resources. For instance, beef production demands 5 times the amount of water and 10 times the amount of land in comparison to plant-based alternatives.
“Embracing plant-based foods is a powerful way to reduce our ecological impact, mitigate climate change, conserve natural resources, and foster a healthier planet” Tschirkov explains. “As consumers, we all have the power to make a positive impact through our daily food choices. However, supporting those choices demands action from regulators and legislators.”
Tschirkov would like to see changes that help to shape an operating environment that encourages further investment and innovation in producing plant-based foods. This, he believes, is essential if Europe is to unlock investment from businesses that are developing the plant-based alternatives that are increasingly important to European diets.
One key piece of policy on the horizon is the anticipated review of the European Commission’s Protein Strategy. Industry leaders like Herbalife are calling for this review to highlight measures that can support plant protein production in the EU. These should, they argue, extend beyond a focus on producing feed for animals and instead recognise the increasing importance of plant proteins in European diets. They would also like to see changes to VAT regimes for plant-based food products, to ensure that they are affordable to more households.
“We are seeing a massive shift in the dietary habits of Europeans,” Tschirkov reminds us. “Policy needs to recognise this and put measures in place to ensure that there is a strategic approach that can support the decisions that consumers are already making.”
It is a view that is shared by MEP Tom Vandenkendelaere. He told The Parliament that he is confident that the upcoming review will include effective actions that will support consumers, industry, and the environment.
A balanced diet is key not only for people’s health but also for the planet’s biodiversity as it can help to reduce our emission footprint.
“In our upcoming European Protein Strategy our goal is to increase the autonomy of the European Union by boosting the production of plant proteins,” he explains. “We need to make sure it includes farmers along with the whole food value chain and takes into account the principles of the circular economy.”
Key to achieving these shared outcomes will be the active involvement of the agricultural sector, investment in research, and campaigns to increase knowledge about plant-based food systems. There is also the need for close collaboration between leading businesses, regulators, and scientists to co-create solutions that deliver health and environmental benefits.
Tschirkov welcomes the progress that is being made but cautions that policy will need to move further and faster if it is to keep pace with rapidly changing consumer habits.
“Policy is already playing catch-up with consumers but now needs to get ahead of that curve” he argues. “With the review of the European Protein Strategy, there is a timely opportunity for politicians to play a leadership role in driving changes that consumers want and that deliver lower emissions, increased biodiversity, and a healthier population.”
As consumers continue to look for alternatives to meat, Europe now has the opportunity to foster an industry that responds to their needs. With coordinated action from industry and the European Commission, that could turn out to be very good news for consumers and the environment alike.