“If slaughterhouses had glasswalls, everyone would be vegetarian.” Paul McCartney
In the first part of this double part series, we took a look at population and the implications on the sustainability of food production and consumption. In this post we will explore the sustainability of diet in greater detail. We will also look at how this issue is becoming a central element of public policy and finally how diets may develop in future.
Meat consumption and sustainability The innovation and expansion of food systems has been fundamental to human health and prosperity over time. However, similar to many other sectors there are now substantial challenges that lie ahead to ensure the sustainability of global food systems. Although it was mentioned that food production is growing at rate that could continue to feed the world’s population, there is actually now a major issue about the impact of what we are eating.
Humans have been eating meat since the early ages and many scientific studies now indicate that the consumption of protein was an essential part of our development as a species. However, upon reaching the 20th century, the population has exploded, giving rise to higher incomes and this has led to much greater consumption of animal protein. As more nations aspire to greater wealth, this will only develop further.
What are the impacts? Like many other industrial processes, supporting increased production has led to the development of more efficient practices like factory farms or “slaughterhouses”. This has resulted in a reduction in standards and distressing and shocking conditions for animals. It also reduces the hygienic standards of the meat, which in some cases has seen an outbreak of many diseases. Despite this, some farms – usually smaller, local establishments – have managed to continue their ethical practices such as pasture raised and grass fed cows.
There are also many direct impacts on sustainability, including water use, land, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, in total, it takes over 10 times the amount of energy from fossil fuels to produce a calorie of animal based food than it does to produce a calorie of plant food. Finally, it is also very inefficient because feeding animals require a substantial amount of grains (it is estimated that it takes about 20kg of grain per 1kg of beef), which could be fed directly to humans. For some of the above reasons, many people either choose to become vegetarian or follow meat reduction diets.
On the other hand, there are issues with the production of plant-based foods (especially exotic fruits) given that they must still be transported long distances and are not immune to human rights issues. Additionally, there are also the Paleo and Dukan diets that recommend minimising or avoiding grains (what becomes the substitute for meat in many vegetarian diets), as they are not easily digested.
Vegetarians and “animal rights” advocates: who are they? It is a highly contentious issue and there are many reasons why individuals do and do not follow a vegetarian diet. The most immediate image that comes to mind is the 3rd grade girl who for the first time draws a similarity between the little lamb in the farm yard and the lamb in the grocery aisle, largely encompassing the “animal ethics” argument. Health is also a major reason why people follow a plant-based diet (see the documentary “Forks over Knives”) as diet can be used to prevent or combat diseases. In many circles, the health benefits of vegetarian eating are becoming trendier. Other reasons are religious, as vegetarianism is a common element of Hinduism, Buddhism and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and taste, as some people do not enjoy the taste of meat. Finally, there is the environmental argument, which entails the belief that producing meat places a strain on the planet’s resources.
There have also been attempts, mostly by animal rights organisations like PETA, to try to reveal some of these practices to the public (information which is not so readily available) and to educate or influence people to reduce their meat consumption. This approach does reveal the situation behind the scenes, but it can also be condescending and even aggressive. Despite these efforts, it is unlikely that most people will convert to vegetarianism any time soon because eating meat is an innate element of our species and this is why today the great majority of people in the world are not vegetarian (and have never been). In fact, according to the Vegetarian Society, it is estimated that just 10% of the global population follow a vegetarian diet through choice or circumstance (and only a few countries, most notably India, largely embrace this in their culture and religion), so any shift away from this behaviour would require enormous changes.
Sustainability and public policy Although it is not the highest of priorities on the sustainability agenda (as the point of sustainability is not to tear down industries), many Economists and figures in the sustainability field like Lord Stern have also spoken at length about the importance of sustainable or plant-centered diets. In the UK, the two main bodies responsible for promoting healthy and sustainable eating behaviours are The Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Health. There seems to be a strong potential for compatibility between these bodies given their mission statements and the two institutions have actually recently collaborated alongside industry on a report attempting to improve the agricultural model in the UK by working towards setting standards for a sustainable diet. This project specified eating a varied diet that moderates meat consumption, placing more emphasis on plant-based foods and other sources of protein and minimises foods high in fat, sugar and salt.
It will be a gradual process involving much cooperation between conflicting interests, but this holds potential to bring about major developments in the debate on food sustainability and public health. In addition to this, governments around the world have begun to experiment with taxes on junk food like France’s tax on sweetened drinks or the more famous example, Denmark’s “fat tax”. To date, this has largely been unsuccessful, receiving very little support from the public. Additionally, there has been an enquiry into the psychology of eating, with many social experiments yielding interesting results most notably from the “Nudge” theory where simple actions like changing the order of the menu or size of plates in a cafeteria can significantly change eating behaviour.
Final thoughts, where to in future? Envisioning the future of food is important as diets have changed enormously throughout history and will undoubtedly change again. As suggested, it is unlikely that whole populations will turn vegetarian; nevertheless, as we approach the finite limits of the planet, it is likely that we could see major changes in the way we eat. At an institutional level, in the face of food shortages, this could take form in rising prices, which would render meat a luxury as it once was. Another possibility is that there is greater uptake of the more flexible forms of vegetarianism (i.e. pescetarian or semi-vegetarian) as the benefits of meat reduction become clearer (see Graham Hill on TED Talk). Furthermore, governments may also intervene to use policies such as “Nudge” or more rigorous policies like levies. Finally, there have also been attempts to develop meat alternatives with the most recent breakthrough of lab-grown meat by Dr.Post in the Netherlands. The benefit of this would be that consumers would not need to abandon meat, but questions remain over its cost, whether it can be commercially viable, and also whether consumers will actually adjust to the taste.
Graham Hill, TED Talk “Why I’m a weekday vegetarian”