Meatballs are an essential and beloved part of many traditional cuisines, from the Italian type served with spaghetti, to the Scandinavian sort popularised by IKEA. In 2015, IKEA sold on average 2.9 million meatballs a day worldwide. This globally popular food staple, and its environmental impact, was the focus of a recent study by Trinity researchers from the School of Natural Sciences.
The research, a joint effort between Trinity and the University of Limerick, examined the environmental impact of meatballs made of Brazilian beef, Irish beef, and a pea protein, plant-based alternative from Germany. The work is part of a wider European study, aiming to promote sustainable choices for food products. The environmental impacts of the three meatball varieties were compared across 16 categories including land use, water scarcity, ozone depletion and human health impacts.
The lead author of the study is Sophie Saget, a Trinity PhD candidate whose research involves studying the environmental impacts of legume-based foods. Saget tested the assumption that Irish beef has a lower climate footprint than its Brazilian alternative, which turned out to be false in 14 of the 16 categories. The most significant difference between the two was in nitrogen pollution, for which the Irish meatballs far outweighed the Brazilian.
The pea-protein alternative had the lowest impact of the three in all 16 categories of the study.
The plant-based alternative performed the best overall, with global warming, acidification, and land use burdens at least 80% smaller than those associated with the beef meatballs. The impact on global warming was 85% less, acidification was 81% less, and land use was 89% less than the traditional beef meatballs. In fact, the plant-based meatballs had a significantly higher nutritional density index, meaning less was needed to be eaten to achieve the same nutritional impact of the beef variety. As such weight comparisons of the environmental impacts don’t show the full story, and when the study corrected for this, these percentage improvements increased to 89%, 87% and 93% respectively.
To study highlights the impact of consumers making plant-based swaps for even some of their meat intake. The researchers calculated that if just 5% of German beef consumption was replaced with pea protein consumption, i.e. each person consumed one plant-based alternative for every 19 beef products they ate, then 8 million tonnes of CO2 could be saved annually. This is 1% of Germany’s total greenhouse gas emissions, a significant amount for a relatively small swap.
The lead scientist of the study, Professor Mike Williams said that “in terms of improving nutrition and the environmental sustainability of our diets, increasing the consumption of plant-protein alternatives to red meat represents a win-win scenario”.
“Plant protein-based foods provide more fibre and a higher nutritional density, and – through virtue of their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen from the atmosphere – impart a significantly lower environmental impact than animal protein products,” Professor Williams said.
The study solidifies the important impact of even small dietary changes on the planet. As a society, it may be difficult to cut down our beef consumption radically, particularly as here in Ireland beef farming is the source of many livelihoods, and meat is one of our largest exports. But for those who are not prepared to make a significant change, even small ones to begin like a meatless-Monday or trying out a new plant-based product could have considerable environmental benefits.