Switching Out Meat in Thailand…With What Exactly?

deepfried snacks
Bangkok Post

Switching Out Meat in Thailand…With What Exactly?

The hidden problems underneath green labels

As pointed out in the first part of this series, alternative meat products, either derived from plant-based or cultivated from animal cells, are increasingly seen as a promising new food innovation that can reduce the environmental impacts from meat production, while also improving the sustainability of our global food system.

Indeed, the alternative meat market in many countries has grown rapidly in recent years. Some of this is driven by studies that point out that alternative meat has a much smaller environmental footprint than animal products sourced from livestock.

The Global Agricultural Information Network’s report authored, in part, by Sukanya Sirikeratikul concluded that there is still plenty of room for the plant-based meat market to expand further, as more and more investors are joining thisflourishing business. They are bringing in a greater variety of products to the market, which in turn increases the availability and diversity of plant-based meat product and makes plant-based meat even more accessible to a wider base of consumers beyond environmentally conscious groups.

Thus, it is clear why most people have such high hopes that these innovations will solve the problems of the global food system.

However, Witoon Lianchamroon, director of Biodiversity, Sustainable Agriculture, and Food Sovereignty Action Thailand (BioThai Foundation), has a more nuanced view.

Witoon Lianchamroon, director of BioThai Foundation, in front of his demonstration organic farm at the organization’s headquarters in Nonthaburi / Credit: Pratch Rujivanarom.

“The real problem is not just about meat, but it is the industrialized food production system as a whole,” he stressed.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) report, it was projected that the global meat consumption over the next decade will increase by 15% by 2031 in relation to estimated population growth of 11% during the next decade.

“We face the pressing issue that the world needs more protein to feed the growing human population. It is also clear that increasing livestock farming to mass producing animal meat products will cause even worse problems for the planet. So, I agree that replacing meat with alternative substitutes from plant is a logical choice for the current situation,” Witoon said.

However, Witoon insists that replacing animal meat with plant-based foods will neither solve environmental problems stemming from the food industry, nor make the global food production more sustainable, as most of plant-based meat products are still manufactured by the same industrial food system as meat.

Witoon and others point to the "Green Revolution," one of the great technological breakthroughs in human history that led to industrial-scale, intensive farming techniques throughout the developing world starting in the mid-20th century. It has completely transformed not only the way food is produced in Thailand, but for all of humanity.

Global food production has skyrocketed by up to 44% since the 1960s, and presumably billions throughout the world were saved from famine and death because of the Green Revolution. This was made possible with the introduction of heavily mechanized farming practices and the cultivation of single types of hybridized high-yield cash crops on large swaths of consolidated farmland. Combined with the utilization of newly invented agricultural innovations at the time, such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, these were all game changers.

Meanwhile, the environmental costs of the Green Revolution have been grave, notes Witoon. This is especially true when one considers the impacts of meat production, which is by far the sector that most consumes energy and natural resources per resulting calorie.

According to the advocacy group Greenpeace, global meat production is causing significant impacts that threaten the stability of the Earth’s systems, as there are very high demands for land and resources throughout the entire production chain of the livestock sector. Some 77% of global farming land (about 40 million square meters) is dedicated to animal grazing and crops for animal feed, while livestock consume about 2,422 cubic gigameters of water annually.

Livestock production also contributes 53% of the overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the agricultural sector, especially in the form of methane, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide and further warms the Earth. It is also responsible for releasing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that affect 78% of global ocean and freshwater ecosystems.

In comparison, the cultivation of high-protein crops for human consumption, such as soybean and legumes, produces lower environmental footprints, as statistical analysis shows. For every 100 grams of plant-based protein, plants require just 2.1 square meters of land and 93 liters of water, while the carbon emissions from this amount of plant-base protein production amount to about 1.6 kilograms of CO2 equivalent.

“Even though the environmental footprints from plant-based meat production are dwarfed in comparison by the footprints of animal products, they are still not entirely free from environmental harms,” Witoon said.

According to Good Food Institute, about nine in 10 plant-based meat products in the United States use soybeans as main ingredient, about the same ratio as in Thailand’s market. Furthermore, 14 plant-based meat brands out of total 17 surveyed brands are made from soybeans.

He explained that the method of industrialized largescale monoculture farming, which requires the intensive use of agrochemicals such as synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides on farmland, is also causing many serious problems to nature such as agrochemical contamination, deforestation, and biodiversity loss.

“Meanwhile, soil fertility and ecosystems are gradually degrading due to the buildup of agrochemical contamination in soil and water, so the farmers will eventually rely on more and more chemical fertilizers and pest killers to maintain the productivity of their farm,” Witoon noted.

“A plant-based hamburger looks green and good, but it will not help us solve the problems of the food industry,” he insisted.

Finding sustainable sources of plant protein

Soy grown on industrial farms is also an integral feedstock for both Thai and global livestock. Witoon points out that this means the intensive soybean cultivation is an inseparable part of meat’s serious problems. Most of the soybeans produced from monoculture-intensive farming are not for human consumption, but instead are used for making animal feed in factory farms.

According to a study by University of Oxford’s Food Climate Research Network, over three-quarters of the world’s soybean crop is fed to livestock; less than 7% of soybean produces are made into plant-based food for humans. The study also revealed that as the global demand for animal protein has gradually risen during recent decades, so, too, has the need for more soy-based animal feed. This dynamic has led to major a expansion of soybean plantations, especially in South America, where the areas for soybean farming has exploded by more than 200 times since the 1960s.

This expansion has in turn led to the extensive deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, resulting in major biodiversity loss, substantial GHG emissions from forest fires, and serious threats to local communities and Indigenous people, as highlighted in a recent article in Nature Ecology & Evolution Journal.

“Since Thailand is another country that relies on imported soybeans - as the domestic soybean production is very low and not enough to supply the soybean demand within the country - we can hardly deny the connection of our plant-based meat’s soybean supply to the pernicious system that causes environmental destructions and serious human rights violation in the Amazon's forests,” Witoon said.

According to Ministry of Commerce’s situation report on soybean as of July 2022, Thailand needs to import 3-4 million tons of soybean annually to substitute for insufficient domestic soy supply. Nearly three quarters of all imported soy comes from Brazil, while the remaining quarter comes from the United States.

Witoon suggests that the plant-based meat businesses in Thailand seek many other plant protein materials domestically instead of importing soybean for their products in order to ensure more sustainability along the supply chain.

The demonstration organic farm and vegetable gardens at the BioThai Foundation's headquarters / Credit: Pratch Rujivanarom

“Thailand is blessed with very rich biodiversity," Witoon observed. "We have various local types of rice, grain, legume, nut, and other food crops, which can be found in the traditional farming communities throughout the country. Many of these local plants are rich in protein and can be processed as plant-based meat.”

Winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) is one of the local high-protein plants that has great potential for making a primary starting material for plant-based meat production, he noted. This kind of native legume species is very rich in protein, on par with soy.

A study by Highland Research and Development Institute (HRDI), published in 2021, also found that in the vicinity of six northern provinces of Thailand alone, six local high-protein legume species were identified that highland Indigenous communities are known to cultivate and routinely use in their diets.

Another major asset of these native local-grown protein crops is their ability to survive and grow in the local environments without chemical applications and extensive exploitation of natural resources. Local people can grow these crops by way of traditional farming, which is much cheaper, greener, and more sustainable than post-Green Revolution techniques.

Although these local seeds are essential for maintaining food security and stable livelihoods in these communities, Witoon cautions that these crucial agrobiodiversity resources are vanishing, as many farmers abandon native seeds for planting cash crops in monoculture.

“Industrial farming is no longer a viable way for producing food anymore. Not only is this farming method seriously harmful to nature - the smallholder farmers are also unjustly taken advantage of by working in contract farming,” he said.

Nature as the solution to food insecurity

Dr. Saranarat Kanjanavanit, former Secretary-General of the Green World Foundation, also agrees that the exploitative nature of industrial agriculture is the fundamental cause of many serious issues in modern food production. She suggested that we need to reembrace regenerative and traditional ways of farming that understand and respect nature and ecosystems as the way forward to build a more sustainable food system.

“Unlike the modern way of industrial farming that seeks to use technology such as synthetic agrochemicals or genetically modified crops to beat the nature, I propose that we have to turn around toward eco-agriculture, which aims to work in cooperation with ecosystems around us. The approach to ensure a safe and sustainable way of feeding the world,” she said.

Dr. Saranarat Kanjanavanit gives a tour of Nunienoi Organic Farm and Nature Connection Center in the Chiang Dao District of Chiang Mai, Thailand / Credit: Pratch Rujivanarom.

With her motivation and expertise in the field of ecology and environmental conservation, Dr. Saranarat has been spending time after retirement to conserve the Nunienoi-area wetlands and start an eco-farm of the same name on private land in Thailand's Chiang Dao District of Chiang Mai province, in the upper north of the country. She hopes it will serve as a learning center on ecological farming.

Saranarat argued that with direct experiences from her farm, she can show that a new ecologically friendly approach toward agriculture is actually working in Thailand and can be the right path in pursuit of food system sustainability.

“We have learned with our sorrow that the benefits from industrial farming to achieve maximum agricultural productivity with intensive chemical use and extreme land exploitation are totally eclipsed by its drastic consequences that end up causing worrying impacts on four planetary boundaries,” she said.

According to a famous study by Rockstrom et al 2009 article in Nature, cited in Greenpeace’s report, the environmental pressures from industrial farming production are responsible for many serious environmental issues that affect four out of nine planetary boundaries, including biodiversity loss, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land use change and climate change.

The first major task of developing the Nunienoi Eco-Farm is to restore ecological health and biodiversity, as the land had previously been used for intensive farming for many years. Saranarat said she could see very clearly how serious the impacts of industrial farming can be on the environment.

“The quality of land and environment was in a degenerated state [here]. Soil fertility is very low from years of intensive farming, while the natural water source is also contaminated with paraquat, which is a very toxic herbicide. There were also not many insects and wild animals around here due to high toxicity in the environment from heavy chemical use,” she said.

After much trial and error, Saranarat has successfully restored land fertility by using rotation farming techniques: she plants rice during the wet season and then switches to soy, which replenish nitrogen right back into the soil, during dry season.

Apart from cash crops, the eco-farm focuses on varieties that have been variably rotated during different times of the year.

Saranarat also rearranges parts of her farmland to serve as natural wetland and rewilds other areas with native species of flora and fauna to improve ecological health and biodiversity on the farm.

Another important task she has before her is to examine the farm every day, plucking invasive weeds by hand, thus adjusting the environmental condition of the farm’s ecosystems to maintain ecological balance. In return, she receives ecosystem services from these acts of restoration in the form of increased natural pollination and pest control.

“During the past three years, I have seen very satisfying improvements in the ecosystems and many species that have never been seen in this area for a very long time have started to come back,” she said.

Saranarat remarked that if we can establish ecological farming as a new normal for global food production, the big debate on the selection of protein choices will not be such a controversial issue, as the production of either plant-based or animal protein will embark on a sustainable path.

“As the ecological condition is getting better, I also find that the farming yield and crop quality are also improving, so I have no doubt that with the right policies and supports from the government, the successful transformation of our agriculture sector toward eco-farming is possible.”

Bugs as the food of the future

Not only are the ecological benefits from conserving biodiversity and nature making Saranarat’s organic “polyculture” eco-farming possible, but they also provide many good protein sources such as wild mushrooms and insects.

According to FAO, edible insects are another promising alternative source of protein. Apart from being a nutritious source of high-quality protein, vitamins and essential amino acids, insects also have high fecundity, high feed conversion efficiency, and rapid growth rates, making them an attractive eco-friendly choice of alternative protein.

Deep-fried insects are a common snack in many Thai markets / Credit: Pratch Rujivanarom.

Thailand is no different. With the increasing consumer acceptance of edible insects and its high potential to be the novel food for the future, Visit Limlurcha, the president of Thai Food Processors Association, recently remarked that edible insects are now becoming the future for Thailand’s food industry.

Considering Thailand’s tropical climate and its naturally rich biodiversity, the country’s Department of Agriculture revealed that more than 50 native species of insects are edible and commonly consumed within its borders. The country is also suitable for farming insects, as right now there are over 20,000 traditional cricket farms in Thailand capable of producing more than 7,000 tons of the bug annually.

Indeed, Visit concluded that Thailand has a great potential to be one of the major insect-based food exporters of the world.

It’s clear that the alternative protein options to help solve climate change and other environmental problems in Thailand and throughout the world are only increasing. It may just require consumers to look in less conventional places.

An abbreviated version of this story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in the Bangkok Post on October 3, 2022. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Deep-fried insects are a common snack in many Thai markets / Credit: Pratch Rujivanarom.

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