Learn the science behind:
“No, but vegetarian chicken is made from soy and soy comes from far thus is worse than a chicken produced 50 km from here. But, that chicken has to eat plants (maybe soy) before growing into a chicken, so getting the food to the chicken is just as bad as getting the soy to the Netherlands.” That’s the type of discussion we ended up with when eating the vegetarian chicken I wrote about in a previous post. Is vegetarian chicken really more sustainable than ‘real’ chicken?
When looking for an answer, I quickly found out it’s not an easy question to answer. And it won’t be one I’ll aim to answer in just one post. Instead, I want to show how complex these questions can get. It is often not a simple answer and that doesn’t only go up for this question, but for a lot of other questions/issues around food.
Introducing the initiators of the discussion
Let’s first discuss what we’re trying to compare. The products certainly aren’t the most complex ones and they have a relatively limited number of ingredients.
Competitor no. 1: Veggie Chickie
‘Veggie chickie’ represents the vegetarian chickens. More specifically we’ll use ‘kipstuckjes’ from the Dutch producer ‘de Vegetarische Slager’ as a reference.
One pack of kipstuckjes contains 160g of veggie meat and costs €3,69 (October-2016). That makes it about €23,- per kg. Veggie chickie can be baked in a frying pan, marinated, wokked, just about anything that competitor no. 2 can.
Due to the complexity of this comparison the vegetarian chicken will be simplified a little more. By far most of the product is made from soy. Therefore, we will focus on soy production and only a little bit of further processing.
Competitor no. 2: The Real Thigh
The competitor of vegetarian chicken is Dutch chicken thigh meat (why thigh meat? because it’s far more delicious than the breast of course). The Netherlands is not such a big country (roughly 200x300km) so we reasoned this would be ‘local’ enough.
Then the next question popped in, which type of chicken? We could go for organic or any other chicken with special labels. However, this competition should be between the regular product and the veggie alternative. Organic vs. regular is a whole different story. So, we chose the chicken thigh meat from one of the larger Dutch supermarkets (Albert Heijn). They recently introduced a ‘new’ regular chicken. These chickens have been raised in a slightly less intensive way as the ‘regular’ chickens.
The meat costs €3,10 for 370g, that is €8,39/kg (a lot cheaper than competitor no. 1!). It doesn’t contain any bones (only meat) and can be prepared in all ways chicken (and vegetarian chicken) can be prepared.
What does ‘better’ food mean?
Just when describing the products we’re comparing you can already get a sense of the complexity. There are so many products, with different origins, compositions, etc. As you will see in the next discussion this is only the start though.
We now have to determine what ‘better’ food is. There are a lot of different types of ‘better’. Is it healthier, tastier, cheaper, more environmental friendly, more animal friendly, etc.? It is virtually impossible to take everything into account as you will see. Let’s just start going and see where we’ll end up.
When looking at vegetarian chicken vs. regular chicken there are nutritional differences. One is that fact that chicken meat contains iron and certain vitamins that the vegetarian chicken doesn’t contain. It will depend on which consumer we’re taking into account as to which is better for our health. Are we rich, well fed consumers, or under fed consumers. For a flexitarian a vegetarian chicken is probably perfectly fine. For someone never eating meat and having an iron deficieny, they might want to take care only eating vegetarian chicken.
Fits my diet
Obviously, vegetarian chicken (in this case the vegetarian chicken is even vegan!) will be ‘better’ than the locally sourced chicken meat for all of those who don’t eat meat. Besides the vegetarian/vegan diet, there’s also all sorts of allergens, preferences, likes, dislikes, sporty/non-sporty people, etc. etc. Again, for some it works, for others is doesn’t. Hard to say.
As you could read in my post dedicated on making vegetarian chicken, I find veggie chickie tastes just as good as the regular one. Especially when part of a larger dish and not served separately. Tastes differ though, just like diets and in order to do a good comparison we’d need a large sensory study.
As you could see when introducing the two competitors, there is pretty big price difference. The regular chicken is one third the price of the vegetarian chicken. Again, which is ‘better’. Is the higher price a better representation of the costs that go into making protein products? Or will eating only vegetarian chicken simply not be sustainable for the poor in our world?
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The other judging criteria
In my opinion these previous criteria were the ‘easy’ ones. They are very personal, but the facts can be collected, to a certain extent. However, there are a lot more criteria which are a lot more complex from a data gathering perspective. Sustainability and animal welfare are probably the two main ones. The EU uses as a definition for sustainability “Strictly speaking sustainability implies the use of resources at rates that do not exceed the capacity of the Earth to replace them”. That’s very broad, so let’s zoom in some more.
Growing crops for human and animal consumption takes up space. So we will have to look at the differences in land use of our two competitors. Let’s just give it a quick go:
The vegetarian chicken is made of soy. This soy is not produced in Europe, instead, it is grown in the US, Canada, South America and Asia. They state that the (non-GMO) soy does not come from regions which are threatened by deforestation. However, estimating the land use, whether this land is used in a sustainable manner, etc. is highly complex.
Not to mention that this soy has then to be transported across the ocean to the Netherlands to be processed into the vegetarian chicken. Soy is not a crop commonly grown in the Netherlands since the climate is not suitable for the regular soy varieties. That said, there are projects going on which do look into growing soy in the Netherlands. That would reduce transport, but would the land use be as efficient?
Agriculture uses water, a lot of water. Water is one of the main environmental impacts for most foods. So by comparing water consumption we will be able to get an impression on the impact on the environment.
That said, the impact of water consumption varies greatly by country. In the Netherlands we have quite a lot of water, but for more water scarce regions this is of high influence. This gives the Dutch chicken an advantage (there’s plenty of water for them), but is the soy also grown in a region where there’s sufficient water?
Transport of resources and foods causes a lot of exhaust of greenhouse gases. This factor is pretty much unseen and is a reason people tend to buy more local food. That said, local isn’t always better. If a climate is simply not suitable for a specific food and requires a lot of extra water or heat, it might cost less energy to transport it over a longer distance than to grow it locally.
Pesticides & Antibiotics
Last but not least, the ‘chemicals’ that are used for producing our chickens. For plants pesticides are essential, for chicken antibiotics and excessive medicine use are important. But there’s no easy data access to the numbers on the use of these for these products. Let alone for my two specific products.
It is virtually impossible to find all the data I need on these topics. It goes to show how complex food sourcing choices are. It’s too easy to say, everyone go vegetarian, or everyone go organic! Food is super important for all of us, but it’s just as important to not try to polarize discussions. My solution to the question at the start of the post: variation. I eat organic, conventional, vegetarian and mix things up. Sometimes I buy the expensive product, other times the cheaper. How do you cope in these situations?
Wageningen University program on soy growing in the Netherlands.
“Currently, 70 % of the feedstock used in the Dutch feed industry originates from the food processing industry.” (source: Wikipedia)
UK report 2010 on meat vs protein (and other topics).
Article commenting on report referred to above.
Whether tofu/soy is as bad as meat, a good one.