Eggs, not plants, key to the UN Food Systems Summit agenda

There is the risk that eggs will be overlooked in the drive to produce more sustainably and slow climate change, but the benefits of plant-based foods can be applied to eggs, as well.

Eggs can be produced sustainably around the world and in any season. | (Dr. Vincent Guyonnet)
Eggs can be produced sustainably around the world and in any season. | (Dr. Vincent Guyonnet)

In the fall of 2021, the Secretary-General of the United Nations will convene a Food Systems Summit with the dual objective of using the agriculture and food systems approach to deliver on the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and to meet the challenges of climate change.  

Although the egg sector exemplifies the contribution of animal production to many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved in 2015 by the UN General Assembly, there is a fear that this summit will be highjacked by activists and anti-animal farming lobbies.   

Ahead of the summit, there may be value in reviewing a few of the arguments made by supporters of vegetarian diets.    

All the nutrients we need can come from plants

Egg white proteins serve as the reference against which all proteins - animal or vegetal - are compared for digestibility or biological activity. Two eggs (100 grams) deliver at least 25% of our daily requirements for the nine essential amino acids. 

How do vegetable proteins compare? 

The closest plant source to eggs, lentils, meets this requirement only for eight essential amino acids in 100 grams, while yellow corn provides for only four, and broccoli and potatoes do not meet the 25% threshold for any of the essential amino acids.  

Eggs are also the source of a wide range of vitamins and minerals.  While plants require lengthy research and genetic modifications to produce varieties with higher vitamin A or folate content, the provision of specific rations to laying hens will quickly produce eggs naturally enhanced in these nutrients.   

Vegetarian diets generate less greenhouse gas

The emissions of CO2 equivalent per kilograms of eggs produced range from 1.6 kg (cage system) to 5 kg (free range system) - lower than most animal-sourced foods including milk but higher than most plant-sourced foods.   

The equation is not, however, quite so simple. 

When nutritional value is taken into consideration, meaning the reporting of the carbon footprint per gram of protein bioavailable, eggs not only compare favorably to other animal-sourced foods but also with a number of plant-sourced foods. 

For instance, while lentil production contributes only 0.9 kg of CO2 equivalent per kilogram, the proteins in lentils require some level of processing due to the presence of antinutritional compounds. Their bioavailability is only about half that of egg proteins. Lentils and eggs have, in fact, the same impact in terms of GHG emissions when one considers their effective nutritional value.  

Large-wheat-field

The large-scale production of animal protein is often criticized but large scale production exists across both plant and animal production. | Kyryl Gorlov | iStock.com

Animal production means more food miles

Food miles are becoming more and more important for retailers to demonstrate the sustainability of the food they offer.  

Global trade in eggs represents only 2.8% of global egg production, with most exchanges being simply cross-border, for example between the Netherlands and Germany or Malaysia and Singapore. By comparison, about 20% of cereal production, 68% of lentil production and 73% of cocoa beans are exported across the world.  

The egg is a nutritious, sustainably-produced and local food, available in all seasons wherever you live.  

Vegetarian diets better for the environment

Over the 1996-2005 period, the global average annual water footprint of our food choices was 1,267 cubic meters, with 29.3% related to cereals, 24% to pulses such as lentils, but only 2.3% related to eggs.  

The Water Footprint Network has shown that eggs require about 25.9 liters per gram of protein produced, the same as vegetables and a bit more than cereals (21 liters) or lentils (6 liters).   

Animal production is out of scale! 

Globally, the majority of egg farms are family-owned and family-run operations, with an average flock size of, for example, 23,000 hens in Canada, 27,600 in Colombia and 57,000 in Japan. 

China, the world largest egg producing country, has, for many years, achieved this outcome with an average flock size of under 5,000 hens. The average flock size in India, the third-largest egg producing country in the world, is estimated to be 10,500 hens. While some farms and companies do own several million hens, often on many sites, we also see the same type of differences in crop farming.  

While the average crop farm in the European Union spreads across only 17 hectares, more than 40% of the crops in Ukraine are produced on farms with more than 500 hectares.  Both small and larger farms contribute to feeding our growing population.  

 The belief, in some quarters, that plant-based foods are automatically more sustainable needs to be questioned, and the argument heard that eggs are already feeding the world in a sustainable manner.

 

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