Ed. note: This article first appeared on ARC2020.eu. ARC2020 is a platform for agri-food and rural actors working towards better food, farming, and rural policies for Europe. 

Plant-based’ is the new ‘sustainable’. Marketed as the remedy to many of our crises, on closer inspection the label means little. And worse, rather than helping us to respect planetary boundaries, it embeds a belief that we can continue to consume because plants are a forever-giving source of food, fibre and fuel. In  a two-part series, Stuart Meikle debunks the reductionist virtues of ‘plant-based’ products.

As January closed so did a month that is becoming synonymous with the words ‘plant-based’. They are already looking like the marketing success story of the Transitionary Twenties as pretty well anyone with anything to sell is seeking to identify with the ‘plant-based’ tag. So just what can go wrong?

As an agriculturalist, the label does not ring true. What product of agriculture is not plant-based in origin? So how can it now confer status and be a sought-after market-place differentiator?

Does ‘plant-based’ clearly indicate that its production was ‘sustainable’ – the new label’s must-exploit predecessor? Does ‘plant-based’ even confirm biodegradability? Or that the biodegradation does not happen in a methane-emitting landfill where the valuable plant-nutrients embedded within the plant-based product, carbon apart, are lost for the best part of forever?

An alternative view is to say that ‘plant-based’ illustrates the rise of reductionism, the victory of simple over complex. Is it the ultimate conclusion of decades of deploying the ‘keep it simple stupid’ principle?

Plant-based’ is marketed as the remedy to many of our crises. It is not. It is embedding a belief that we can continue to consume because plants are a forever-giving source of foods, fibres, biofuels and biomaterials. Nothing can be further from the truth and to think so is to naively sign up to a fallacy.

Address the complex, not the simple

The Stockholm Resilience Centre has sought to highlight the multiple ways that we are transgressing our planetary boundaries. What may surprise some is that the Centre considers that it is with our nitrogen use1 that we transgress the furthest. Then comes our destruction of biodiversity, next our excess phosphorous use, fourth is land system change and, only fifth, climate change. It is not to say that climate change is not a major issue, it is just that we seem to be prioritizing it over all else.

Plant-based’ is intrinsically linked to nitrogen use. Likewise for phosphate use. Our reliance on the artificial versions of both, should be of massive concern. Also, when plant-based means monocultures, biodiversity loss will not be too far away. Nature does not do monocultures, only diversity. And the lack of resilience with monocultures may mean that they are accompanied by pesticide use. None of these are getting a mention when selling ‘plant-based’ to the consumer or the policy decider.

For an agriculturalist, the words nitrogen and phosphate point to one thing, plant nutrition. For the farmer, the consumer and the policy maker, one question needs to be answered, how do we feed the plants that feed us? It must be the 21st Century’s defining question because all else follows.

To go a stage further ask what the difference between a plant-nutrient-based diet and a plant-nutrition-based diet is. It is not tautology; they are as chalk is to cheese. The first is about consumption, while the second is about developing the (truly) sustainable food systems to feed our billions. And, if you wish, replace diet with fibresbiomaterials or biofuels. For all we are drinking from the same well.

Track and trace plant nutrients

In an era of track and trace, it is time we started to track and trace our use of plant nutrients from their source to their final destination. Unlike in Nature, our agricultural systems and consumption patterns rarely return from whence they came, and recycling is rarely more than a lip service to sustainability.

If we move our thinking on from plant-based to plant-nutrition-based it does not mean leaving behind all of the animal-welfare motives that have come to be associated with plant-based. Indeed, the idea of ‘eat less but better’ (be it meat or animal products) is one that sits easily with a plant-nutrition-first approach. From the perspective of plant nutrients consumed (as in not effectively cycled) animal products can be very inefficient, even in a world where artificial plant-nutrient-use efficiency is already low, be the products plant-based or animal-based. And if the analysis is based upon nutrients and not energy consumed, ‘plant-based’ as a moniker alone is not an adequate choice differentiator.

Technology will improve nutrient use efficiency, but so long as humans and a great many of the animals that feed them are highly urbanized and, thus divorced, from the land that feeds them, efficiency will be low and the leakages high. And with that comes pollution and emissions, be it in the form of nitrates and phosphates into the aquatic environment or nitrous oxide or ammonia into the atmosphere. And that is without thinking of the fossil-fuel-based energy wasted through losses per se and the clean-up.

The crux of the matter is that we must move our agricultural systems to those that effectively source nutrients naturally, circulate them efficiently within growing systems, minimize losses from product supply chains, and return them into plant material production systems post-use. Such goes for any products that emanate from plant-based systems, our one and only drinking well as they are.

  1. ‘Nitrogen’ includes nitrous oxide, nitrates and ammonia pollution of the aquatic environment and atmosphere.

The mere fact that a product is ‘plant-based’ is no guarantee of sustainability. Whether our food comes from plants or animals, in terms of sustainability our choices would be better informed by nutrient cycles. Much of our agriculture depends on monoculture crops which are unable to feed themselves as, in the absence of plant biodiversity, they are starved of nature’s bounty of nutrients. Second in a two-part series by Stuart Meikle.

A rule for a new farming age will be that farm animals must be the builders, not consumers, of fertility.

It is a rule that farmers would have intuitively understood before, say, 1950. It is the availability of artificial nitrogen that has allowed human population growth and, in wealthier nations, the perception that cheap animal products could be consumed with alacrity. Such is where we are now.

All animal products are not equal. As fossil-fuel-based energy declines and awareness of the pollution and emissions around artificial fertilizers rises, we will have to reduce the consumption of the products emanating from systems where nutrient recycling to the land is poor and where the plants consumed have relied on artificially sourced, not naturally sourced plant nutrition. But which are which?

A situation where phosphates are mined in Western Sahara and shipped to feed crops in South America the produce of which is then used in a confined animal feeding operation in Western Europe is one where the nutrients are fossil-fuel expensive and their use inefficient. That their post-use residuals can also end up polluting local-to-feeding aquatic environments only compounds the folly. And it is not just with animal-included systems, direct-to-human soya only skips one step before the issue of post-consumption residuals arises. Thus, tracking and tracing plant nutrients is an invaluable exercise.

In contrast, there are ways to rear farm animals where artificial plant nutrition is not needed. If designed to mimic nature, the systems can draw down the nitrogen and carbon they require from the atmosphere and draw up phosphates from the soil profile. It is then about minimizing the losses of plant nutrients at harvest and efficiently recycling all else. To achieve this farm animals must live upon the land that feeds them, or at least pretty adjacent to it. That is Golden Rule Number Two.

Crop to crop nutrient transfer

If farm animals are not equal, the same applies to farm crops. Which crops can draw down nitrogen or raise their own phosphates? Sourcing carbon as a plant nutrient is not an issue. The answer is very few.

Plants naturally exist within a biodiverse system where symbiosis with a multitude of organisms means that they have access to the nutrients they require. Remove that biodiversity and they cannot exist. Reduce it and they cannot thrive or produce abundance. The ultimate is our crop monocultures that are dependent upon fossil-fuel-using, polluting and emitting artificial fertilizers. We will not be able to wean ourselves off them anytime soon, but we must start to proactively reduce their use.

An inherent problem we have with our food systems is that they have evolved to function around the monoculture. Monocultures deliver on cost, and they deliver simplicity of management. That they are unable to feed themselves with respect to plant nutrition has been missed. And such a criticism applies to both plant monocultures and animal monocultures that have been divorced from plant nutrition.

Our agricultural systems need to have plant diversity restored to them. It must happen in such a way that the diversity is able to deliver abundant plant growth. Plant diversity working in symbiosis with soil-living microorganisms that source and cycle plant nutrients will have to deliver. And abundance will come though applying management techniques that swiftly recycle nutrients within the system.

The role of the farmed animals is twofold; a) they can rapidly biodegrade and recycle plant nutrients, and b) they can transfer nutrients between crops. Both functions build fertility while the latter allows an element of monoculture to occur with respect to direct-to-human-use crops. This is nothing new, it is classic agriculturalism. Such, however, only allows for the prudent harvesting of animal products. They used to only be for high days and holidays, and certainly not for everyday consumption. Their role in creating and managing plant nutrition (aka fertility) was too important to household survival.

Plant-nutrition-based products

Therefore, if we want to talk about sustainability, we should be choosing our products on the basis of how the plant is fed. Just consuming plants if not the answer as our future agricultural systems will have to be founded on the knowledge of how we feed those plants. It will be all about knowing which plants can source their own phosphates and which can source nitrogen. It will be about understanding the wider symbiotic relationships that enable plants to work with others to fill their own nutritional gaps that they cannot fill themselves. It will be about the considerate husbandry of the farmed animal.

For agriculturalists, it will be about managing plant and animal biodiversity to create abundance with little. And it will only become more complex as fossil-fuel usage becomes an issue and we begin to learn just how to live within the planetary boundaries defined by nitrogen and phosphorous.

If, however, we think as consumers we can define our choices with simplicity, we need to think again. The next decades are going to be how humankind’s billions learn to live within the Planet’s ecosystem, and to do that we have to understand how they function and how we can collaborate with them. And the ‘plant-based’ logo is not going to contribute to that, its message is by far too simplistic. As much as our modern world may wish, we cannot reduce Nature’s complexity to 280 characters or less.


Teaser photo credit: Vegan cheese made from cashews and almonds. By mangostaniko – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58088667