Discussing the event "How to squeeze fat into a sustainable food future"

In our event “How to squeeze fat into a sustainable food future” we explored the role of fats in a sustainable food system from many different angles.

Bojana Bajzelj talked about her and co-authors study The role of fats in sustainable diets to find out whether we are eating enough or too much fat, and what strategies seem most promising in terms of producing fats sustainably.

Federica Laguzzi gave an general overview of what fats are, why they are important for humans, their dietary sources and a quick overview of the evidence between fats and health.

Hanna Karlsson Potter spoke about microbial oils, specifically oleaginous yeast and how the yeast can be produced, and offered some examples of what types of feedstock and what types of oil it can be used for.

Cecilia Lalander talked about the potential of using fly larvae to link waste management to food production.

Adrian Muller addressed some aspects of replacing palm oil with rapeseed oil, based on an ongoing project from the organic oil and fat sector.

For now, we wish to provide a space for people to share resources, and continue the conversation started during that event.

What do you think of the presentations and the discussion? Are there any topics or ideas you believe could have added to the discussion? Let us know below!

Thanks everyone for the event yesterday. I find this a very interesting topic and had a few more thoughts and questions on what the implications of the findings of the article may be. It was mentioned a few times yesterday that meat – or even animal-sourced food in general – is often equated with protein but that ‘we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food’. I agree that this is a valuable point and I found it really interesting how the paper showed that the excessive emphasis on protein can have the actual consequence of a potentially massive fat gap. It struck me that you could see this as a particular case of ‘nutritionism’ - see this book by Gyorgy Scrinis:

However, the same logical step that’s made in ‘we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food’ could be set a few times more: we don’t eat single foods but foods sit within a diet; and we don’t just consume a diet but we’re part of a bigger food system. Proposed changes on the level of individual nutrients or food categories, accordingly will have wider and more complex implications across these various scales that may not be limited to nutritional intakes or environmental sustainability.

I’m aware that this stretches way beyond the intended scope of the paper, but I’m imagining that different ways of closing the fat gap might have different implications for the wider socio-political functioning of the food system. In particular, I wonder to what extent a potential switch from animal-sourced fats to more soy oil, palm oil or potentially even microbial fats might pave the way for corporate consolidation: a situation where a few large corporations (who buy up ‘innovative start ups’ that create plant-based alternatives) have increasing control over what we eat and what farmers produce and earn. The biggest food use of soy oil and palm oil (in Europe) is currently in industrial food processing. For me – and perhaps others – the idea of replacing animal-sourced fats with such plant-based alternatives brings to mind the image of a huge processing industry that produces a few plant-based alternatives such as soy burgers (that contain plant-based protein but can potentially be ‘enriched’ with soy or palm oil) and sells these everywhere on the globe – likely undermining local food cultures and causing a further homogenisation of diets. At the same time, you could say that the pork sector (which provides a significant share of fat – see figure 1 in the article) is already highly consolidated (at least in Europe), but I believe this is less so the case for dairy (another important supplier of fat).

I wonder is this a valid concern or just a pessimistic vision that lacks nuance? How intimate are the relationships between plant-based fats, industrially produced foods and corporate consolidation? And are there ways in which a reduction in animal-based foods and the closing of the resulting fat gap could actually go hand-in-hand with the development of a food system that is more democratic, diverse and equitable?

I agree this is a really valid question that also concerns to me. Technologically-enabled change to the food system inevitably entails a drive towards consolidation of power - the more specialist resources (skills, information, equipment) are needed to create food, the more that favours larger producers, people who already have resources and power.

That said, I don’t think it’s inevitable that technologically-enabled solutions result in power in fewer hands and all of us more alienated from the food we eat. It’s possible to imagine a future in which new technologies for creating microbial fats, or for processing plant materials, are open source instead of being locked behind patents, and in which there is a lot of small-scale local production by diverse producers. It’s just not the future that the market alone is likely to lead us to… Perhaps we spend too much time focusing on the “what” of these transitions (what does a future food system look like?) and not enough time on the “how” (how do we get there, and what do different processes of change mean for the structure of the final system?)

I am wondering whether from both a nutritional perspective, and a just, sustainable food system perspective, if whole plant sources of fatty acids - including, of course, the essential fatty acids (EFAs) - might be part of the solution?

That is, depending upon the local growing conditions, most of our fatty acids coming from more locally grown whole plant foods? It’s my understanding that generally, there are more diverse regions where nutritionally beneficial, locally adapted seeds and nuts can grow to supply our EFA needs, and most of the rest of the healthy fatty acids in our diets. Then we would need an ethical trade in the healthy higher fat plant foods which don’t grow so widely e.g. mature soya, olives etc.

Extracted plant oils could then be a less significant part of our dietary fats?