Sustainable Actions

by Rebecca Knowles

Reading some of the latest environmental research, it seems to concur on the same pressing conclusion: WE MUST REDUCE THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF OUR FOOD SYSTEM by changing what and how we produce food, and by changing what we choose to consume.

The EAT-Lancet Commission report (January 17th, 2019) states that “food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental stability on earth1. In their research, aimed at developing global scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production, the commission concluded that a diet rich in plant-based foods (including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains) and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits”. The data uncovered in the commission’s study was “both sufficient and strong enough to warrant immediate action” concluding that “without action…today’s children will inherit a planet that has been severely degraded and where much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable diseases”.

Photo by Artem Bali from Pexels

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in their report last year that “livestock are responsible for more GHG emissions than ALL other food sources” and that these emissions can be reduced by “targeting the demand for meat and other livestock products2.The IPCC study found that a global shift to a plant-based diet would save 29-70% in CO2-eq (p. 4-73). If Scotland is to reduce its emissions and thereby do its part in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, the above information cannot be ignored.

The IPCC mitigation group said that the main finding of their group was the need for “urgency”: that we only have around a dozen years in which drastic action must be taken to avoid a global rise in temperature of more than 1.5 degrees beyond which extreme weather, drought, famine, flooding, loss of life, forest fires, massive habitat and biodiversity loss, the end of coral, and rising sea levels are amongst the catastrophes we can expect. So, we need to act quickly.

Independent research is in accord with the EAT-Lancet Commission and the IPCC’s findings. Science journal published a study in June last year3. The purpose of the research was to find sustainable, low impact ways to produce meat and dairy. The study covered 40,000 farms in 119 countries and investigated 40 food products (90% of everything we eat). The conclusion was that there isno such thing as sustainable meat and diary: “Even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing”. The lead researcher in the study, Joseph Poore from Oxford University, became a vegan during the study as these results began to emerge.

A further study published in Nature in October 2018, said to be the most comprehensive study to date, combined data on food systems from every country and concluded that we need to massively reduce our production and consumption of animal products in order to prevent the planet from environmentally going “beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity4. Specifically, the study said that UK citizens need to consume 90% less pork, beef and lamb; 60% less milk and, globally, 50% less eggs.

Dr Pete Smith of the University of Aberdeen, contributing author to the IPCC SR1.5, told the Guardian: “We know food choices are very personal, and that behaviour change can be difficult to encourage, but the evidence is now unequivocal – we need to change our diets if we are to have a sustainable future. The fact that it will also make us healthier makes it a no-brainer”.

It is acknowledged that some populations worldwide depend on agropastoral livelihoods, suffer from malnutrition, and may have difficulty obtaining sufficient plant-based food sources; however, that is not the case in the UK. There is nothing stopping us from transitioning to a 100% plant-based diet right now. We, as a developed nation need to do more because other countries may be obliged, for the time-being at least, to do less. The planet is the responsibility of us all, and it is imperative that we all work together to save it.

We also pride ourselves on being a nation that vigorously opposes animal cruelty. Yet, we endorse, and pay for, routine, institutional mercilessness towards farmed animals. Transitioning to a plant-based diet would free us from this cultural hypocrisy. It would permit us to align our forks with our values.

It is a common misconception that vegans want to put farmers out of business. Nothing could be further from the truth. Farmers will always be the people who produce our food. However, they will produce what government subsidises them to produce.

Here are some specific requests of government policy makers.

1. Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission: Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems: Food Planet Health, January 2019.

2. IPCC SR1.5 Approval Session, June 2018: 

3. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. J Poore, Science, June 2018: Vol. 360, Issue 6392.  

4.  Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Springmann, M et al., Nature, Oct 2018, Vol 562.