It’s packed with protein, iron and calcium and is conveniently versatile when cooked, but it turns out tofu is also controversial.
A longtime staple of vegetarian diets – and of course, Thai and Chinese cooking – tofu is now sparking debate as the world wakes up to the environmental impact of their food.
Speaking at the National Farmers Union conference in London, Dr Graham McAuliffe from the Rothamsted Institute referenced yet to be published research that suggests tofu may have a bigger impact on climate change than some meats.
He acknowledged this early-stage research should be “interpreted with caution”, The Times reports, but suggested the human body finds it harder to absorb proteins from plants, which means people consume them in higher quantities.
“If you look at tofu, which is processed so there is more energy going into its production, [...] you can see it could actually have a higher global warming potential than any of the monogastric animals. To get the same amount of protein, tofu is worse,” he said.
Cue headlines declaring “tofu is worse than meat for the environment” – and a lot of happy farmers. But some environmental groups say this interpretation oversimplifies the issue, with the Sustainable Restaurant Association calling it: “clickbait [that] only really serves writers and people with a product to sell”.
So what’s better, tofu or meat? As with many sustainability conundrums, there isn’t one clear answer. The question often comes down to your personal priorities: animal rights, deforestation, carbon emissions or a combination of all three.
“It’s important to recognise that the vast majority of foods, plant-based or not, are going to have an impact on the environment. That is an inescapable fact,” Matt Turner, a spokesperson from The Vegan Society, tells HuffPost UK.
To help you land upon the right choice for you, here’s what we know about the environmental impact of both meat and tofu:
The issue with meat...
Ever-growing lists of reports have suggested eating less meat is key to reducing our environmental impact on the planet, with the United Nations, the University of Oxford and the Government’s own Committee on Climate Change coming to this conclusion.
“More than 25% of global emissions come from food, and over half of this comes from animal products,” Andrew Stephen, CEO of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, tells HuffPost UK. “Livestock production accounts for a king-size 16.5% of total global emissions.”
Rearing livestock uses up resources – from water and land, to fuel used in the transportation process. Cows and sheep also burp methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, contributing to climate change.
But a major contributor to the environmental cost of meat is the food the animals themselves consume, which regularly includes soybean animal feed. The global demand for soya, or soy, as it’s more commonly called in the US, has led to “vast amounts of deforestation and habitat conversion in some of the world’s most precious places”, according to WWF.
But tofu uses soya, too...
Tofu is made by curdling soya milk taken from soybeans, which is why some critics argue that it’s not a sustainable alternative to meat. However, it’s estimated that 75% of all global soya produced is used to feed livestock.
“Many involved in the meat industry would like to blame tofu for soya demand and deforestation, but the reality is that the vast majority of soya production is still used to feed farmed animals,” says Turner.
It’s for this reason he questions McAuliffe’s research. “Eating meat, dairy and eggs is an inefficient way of getting calories. Bear in mind that for every 100 calories fed to animals, we receive back only 12 calories by consuming their flesh and milk,” he says.
“Reports from groups such as the Environmental Working Group have illustrated that the greenhouse gas emissions created by 1kg of tofu are far less than that of meats.”
So what’s there to debate?
The main reason for confusion around tofu’s eco-credentials compared to meat is because production methods and supply chains for both vary a lot, says Stephen.
“Not all meat is equally damaging, and some plant-based foods can have big water and land-use footprints,” he explains.
“According to the Carbon Trust, tofu made with soya from the deforested land in the Brazilian rainforest will have a carbon footprint twice that of chicken (so long as that chicken is not fed on that same deforestation soya). Uncertified South American soy can come with a heavy environmental cost.”
For now, most soya in the world is consumed by livestock. But if we all start replacing meat with tofu, it doesn’t solve the problem of soya consumption, only shifts the source.
What’s the solution, then?
If you’re vegan or vegetarian for animal rights reasons, tofu is still likely to be the right choice for you in a toss up between meat and tofu.
If you have a taste for tofu, but are now worried about its impact on deforestation, you can seek out ethically-produced tofu products to limit the damage.
“Deforestation is a major concern when purchasing any soya product, but most of the leading tofu brands in the UK avoid using soya from areas of risk,” says Stephen. “Look for organic certifications to be assured that the tofu you buy in the supermarkets isn’t doing more harm than good.”
To truly earn your halo, it could be time to reduce your consumption of both meat and tofu – or ditch them altogether.
“While there are better plant-based options for the environment than tofu, eating a vegan diet is still the best thing you can do to reduce your environmental footprint,” says Turner.
“Ultimately, a diet that is pulses-heavy will have the least impact. So, if you want to do even more than you’re already doing for the environment while keeping the all-important nutrition and flavour, beans and lentils are your best bet.”