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Singaporeans may have beef with greener diet

The Straits Times by REI KUROHI AND SHABANA BEGUM NAZEER

Singaporeans eat three to five times more meat and eggs than is environmentally sustainable, according to a new study published yesterday in medical journal The Lancet and local data. But experts here believe it will be hard to adjust local diets to be planet-friendly.

According to latest Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority figures, each Singaporean on average ate 2kg of beef, 3kg of mutton and 20kg of pork in 2017. This works out to a combined 68.5g a day, nearly five times the 14g which the study recommends as part of a diet which can help counter climate change.

The average Singaporean ate 30kg of chicken, 2kg of duck and 349 eggs. This works out to 87.7g of poultry a day, about three times the 29g suggested by the study, which caps consumption of eggs to 81 a year.

The study, which attracted backlash from the international livestock and dairy industries, warned of "catastrophic" consequences for the planet if humans do not drastically change the way food is produced and consumed.

Its authors singled out beef as a major cause of climate change, given the large amount of resources required and the levels of methane produced.

The study was compiled by 37 scientists and academics from 16 countries, who came up with a "planetary health diet" to counteract climate change. It will require "substantial dietary shifts" by 2050, they wrote.

The diet, described as "flexitarian", is mostly plant-based but allows for some meat, fish and dairy. It includes more than doubling the global consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and beans, while slashing sugar and red meat consumption by more than half.

While eating more plant-based foods will help, it comes with some drawbacks as many such foods do not have as much proteins and micronutrients like iron as meat. One solution is to eat more fermented foods like kimchi and miso.

The University of Indonesia's Dr Rina Agustina, one of the study's commissioners, told The Straits Times that the guidelines can be adapted to South-east Asian diets with the aid of local food databases.

She said: "It is also important to increase sustainable animal production such as with fisheries and aquaculture. These changes need to be supported by coordinated action from the agriculture, health, environment and industrial sectors."

Senior human nutrition specialist at Nanyang Polytechnic's School of Chemical and Life Sciences Tay Mia Eng said it may take a long time for Singaporeans to embrace the flexitarian diet, but it is not impossible.

"Singaporeans tend to eat out frequently and are used to mainly animal-based proteins in their diet. There are few vegetarian stalls at hawker centres," she said.

Ms Tay said a drastic shift will require effort from the Government and more public awareness. She said the adoption of whole grains has been a slow process.

The National Nutrition Survey 2018 found that unrefined carbohydrates as a proportion of total carbohydrates in Singaporeans' diets increased from 14 per cent in 2010 to 17 per cent last year due to increased consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Professor William Chen, director of the Nanyang Technological University's Food Science and Technology programme, said he mostly agreed with the study's findings on the effects of our current diet on the environment.

Future may lie in insects, microalgae and technology

But he said that while eating more plant-based foods will help, it comes with some drawbacks as many such foods do not have as much proteins and micronutrients like iron as meat does.

One solution is to eat more fermented foods like kimchi and miso, said Prof Chen. These foods contain microbes that produce essential micronutrients and can supplement a plant-based diet.

He also said that the future of sustainable diets may lie in technology-driven food production.

Turning to laboratory-grown meat, sustainable aquaculture and adopting insects and microalgae as sources of nutrition are some possible solutions.

He said: "Many people still face a psychological barrier to insect-based proteins. I am not suggesting we should all be eating fried crickets. But farmed insects, which are more environmentally friendly than meat, can serve as additional supplements.

"And depending on the species, microalgae can provide carbohydrates, proteins and fats."