The planet can only be saved from climate catastrophe if people realise their power as consumers and opt out of an unsustainable food system.
Eating a plant-based diet has been identified as one of the four most important actions we can take as individuals to tackle the climate crisis.
When compared to the other three – having fewer children, avoiding air travel and living car-free – it’s the most widely applicable, and immediate solution. If you’re reading this at breakfast, you could, in theory, start at lunchtime. But it’s also likely to be the one that is hardest to swallow. For many of us, it will involve changing a lifetime of food habits.
In New Zealand, our goal is to be carbon-neutral by 2050. At the moment, the typical Kiwi adult’s diet amounts to about 6.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents a day, with over a third coming from meat, seafood and egg consumption, according to a recent University of Otago study. By simply changing our diet – as well as minimising food waste – researchers found the emissions saved could equate to a 59 per cent reduction in annual light passenger vehicle emissions.
The science has made it clear what the team of five million has to do. But how we’re going to do it is still something of a hot potato, in a country where both the culture and economy are tied up in our love affair with meat and dairy products.
“Switching from an animal-based diet to a plant-based diet really is the answer,” says Miranda Mirosa, an associate professor in consumer food science at the University of Otago. “It’s not one we all want to hear – meat plays a really important role in our everyday lives and culture and national identity, so it’s going to be a really hard transition.” New Zealand has the sixth-highest per capita meat consumption rate in the OECD. We also have our heads in the sand when it comes to the environmental impacts of eating meat.
Another recent University of Otago study surveyed 841 Kiwi adults, asking what they believed were the most sustainable food behaviours. Respondents believed that buying foods with less packaging had the greatest positive impact on the environment, followed by eating seasonally, buying local, avoiding air-transported foods, buying organic, and finally, eating less meat.
The obsession with meat is deeply ingrained in the culture of much of the western world, says one of the authors of the study, senior geography lecturer Sean Connelly. ”It’s something that has been part of our diets for so long,” he says. “You think of celebratory meals during the major holidays – meat has always been a big component of that. Then the luxury of having meat for Sunday dinner you would carve up for the rest of the week has evolved to become part of every meal.”
Because of this, many of us will find it hard to go cold turkey. But even going from eating meat every single day, to a few times a week or once a week would be a solid start, Connelly says. “There is the space to give meat more value when you do eat it. People could shift from eating cheaper, low-quality cuts on a daily basis to a better cut of meat that they perhaps might enjoy more, but doing it less frequently.”
People don’t like to be told what they should eat. But that’s the point we’re at.
In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission sparked a global debate with the release of its “planetary health diet”, which quite literally served up the ideal on a plate. Half of this so-called “planetary health plate” consisted of vegetables and fruits, while the other half was made up of whole grains, plant protein sources and unsaturated plant oils. Modest amounts of animal sources of protein were optional. “It’s not just what we eat – it’s how we grow it and how we make it,” says King, who is also the founder and director of a food consultancy, Spira.
“Yes, we know that meat – particularly red meat – and dairy products have a higher impact because of the way they’re grown. If you have hundreds of thousands of cows on a feedlot and you’re importing food from a country that’s destroyed indigenous forest to grow soy or palm kernel to feed them, then your impact is a lot higher.”
The problem is right now, you can’t walk into a supermarket and get all of that information on a label. “You might see ‘organic’ and think, ‘ok, so that’s better’ – but you don’t necessarily know what ‘organic’ means. Organic certification also looks at things like welfare and how the animals are raised… you might have a really large-scale organic place.”
It even comes down to basic cooking skills and knowledge – for those who are time-poor and used to cooking a regular rotation of meat-based meals, figuring out what to do with a tin of lentils may be overwhelming. “There’s a lot that comes in that basket of food literacy and I think we have to be really careful we’re not just putting even more burden on people,” says King. “We have families that don’t have access to pots and pans – in some parts of our community, we are a long way off food literacy around issues of climate change.”
When it comes to these issues, the general consensus is that it’s going to be too big of an ask to put the onus on individuals to make the right choices. “It’s a radical transformation that’s required – it’s not just making small changes from brand A to brand B,” says Mirosa. “I think it is a really fundamental shift which is going to take lots of people. It’s going to take education, but it’s possibly going to take more than that, in terms of looking at other ways to get people to change behaviour through financial incentives and all sorts of things.”
Connelly agrees it will require a carrot-or-stick approach if we are to make the changes ahead of the 2050. For example, in some parts of the world, there have been calls for red meat to be taxed, in recognition of its impact on the planet and on human health. ”It would be foolish to expect individuals to be able to make this shift on their own. This is the kind of thing that needs support if we’re to take it seriously.”
It’s going to be hard. But it’s not impossible, because we’ve already done it, King points out. “The food system is one of the oldest stories of mankind,” she says. “We are on the backs of generations of people who have been farming properly and growing food and eating in a sustainable way. It’s quite likely that it’s the old ways of doing things that will ultimately mean we are able to make the changes.”
Original source: https://www.stuff.co.nz