Tthat great project of our species has been agriculture. Since the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, humans have been inclined to make agriculture our path to prosperity. And after a slow start, we seem to have become incredibly good at it.
Over the millennia, gradual improvements in our farming techniques created access to abundant food, thus laying the foundation needed for our first civilizations and societies to be established and grow.
This progress was overwhelmed by the industrial revolution, and over the past two centuries, agricultural techniques have advanced rapidly, eventually fostering a whole new relationship between people, livestock, food, the global economy, and the environment.
But at the very moment when the food choices available to the average western consumer have never been wider, nor the comparative costs of eating so low, the darkness and bloating of most of the food we eat – the payment we are getting takes the planet – it is more and more exposed, and it is not beautiful.
Deforestation, use of deadly pesticides, overfishing, monoculture farms without wildlife, contagious animal diseases that pose a threat to humans, land degradation and endless invisible greenhouse gases released by livestock, are all among the issues with which consumers can take if inclined Me
So in the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, many people are developing more and more new behavioral groups around food.
A 2019 Ipsos Mori poll commissioned by The Vegan Society found that the number of vegans in the UK quadrupled between 2014 and 2019.
In 2019 there were about 600,000 vegans, or 1.16 percent of the population. While this figure is low, it represents an increase from 150,000 vegans (0.25 percent of the population) in 2014.
This year, 500,000 people worldwide registered in the Veganuary campaign, double the 2019 figure.
Meanwhile, people who describe themselves as vegetarians make up almost 15 per cent of the UK population, and fishermen – who do not eat meat but eat fish – make up 6 per cent, while those who say they eat everything make up 61 per cent. of the population, according to the latest figures from Statistawith
There are various factors at play, and attitudes and ability to the way we approach our diets can be greatly influenced by forces such as wealth, habit, tradition, education, class, current affairs, and political affiliation.
While animal welfare has long been a serious issue for many in food production, there are now new concerns about the wider environmental impacts and the global climate crisis due to the ways food is produced, transported, packaged and sold. our.
Images of animals suffering in slaughterhouses have been part of campaigns against eating meat for many decades, but it is relatively recently that environmental concerns have also begun to lead people to the same conclusion.
An analysis by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization found that meat and milk account for 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – as do all cars, HGVs, airplanes and combined transport.
Why is this? Well, the impact that the world is changing from increasing demand for meat and milk is hard to overestimate.
Of all the mammals on Earth, 96 percent are now cattle. Meanwhile, since the beginning of humanity, our species have caused the loss of 83 percent of wildlife and about half of plants.
Meat production uses about 82 percent of the world’s agricultural land and produces 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture.
In total, about 30 percent of all the land in the ice-free world is used to raise cereals, fruits, and vegetables that feed directly on the chickens, pigs, and cattle that we eventually eat.
In rugged terrain, such as those in the UK, millions of sheep not only produce methane, but also eat plant shoots which prevent forest regeneration and biodiversity restoration. In other areas, deer have the same landscape stripping effect.
Scientists have said that avoiding meat and dairy products from your diet is the only best way an individual can reduce his impact on the environment and help address the climate crisis and biodiversity.
Historical research by academics at Oxford University in 2018 found that removing meat and dairy products from your diet can reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 percent.
If everyone stops eating these foods overnight, then global agricultural land use could be reduced by 75 percent – an area equal to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined.
This would not only result in a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but would also free up wild land lost from agriculture, one of the main causes for the mass extinction of wildlife.
But in a country where over 90 percent of people eat animal products, a massive overnight transition to veganism is hardly realistic. Scientists are not becoming vegan, they are urging people to start reducing meat and milk consumption.
Jonathan Wells, professor of anthropology and pediatric nutrition, told The Independent“Switching to a much larger portion of the global diet from plant foods is a key way to mitigate climate change and ecological degradation. Plant foods are more efficient per unit of soil, and this would allow more soil to be left wild.
“From my point of view, promoting a general change in plant-based diets in the population and globally is more important than whether individuals become fully vegan, or vegetarian, or just stay an omnivorous but consume less food of animal origin. . “
The transition away from meat and milk is ultimately inevitable if the world is to meet climate targets, according to Dr Mike Clark, of Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Population Health, an expert on the environmental, economic and health impacts of food systems.
He said: “On a global scale, there is an abundance of evidence suggesting that consumption and production of meat and milk should be reduced in order to promote health and meet environmental objectives. This is especially true in high-income economies. like the United Kingdom, the US, Australia, the EU with a history of high meat and dairy consumption. “
Dr Keren Papier, a Nutritional Epidemiologist also from the Department of Population Health in Nuffield, Oxford, also stressed the role that rich nations should play in overturning existing dietary habits to reduce the burden on the environment.
She said The Independent“Current levels of meat and milk consumption in high-income countries are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and also put massive pressure on the environment and biodiversity through [for example] land use change and water pollution.
“Therefore, significantly reducing consumption in high-income countries is essential to meeting global environmental and biodiversity objectives.”
As well as direct environmental benefits, cutting meat and milk in countries with the highest consumption rates of these products would bring widespread health benefits.
Dr Clark said: “There is a lot of evidence to suggest that switching to more plant-based diets is likely to reduce the incidence of diet-related diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers. is especially true in regions that consume a lot of meat, such as the United Kingdom.
He added: “The main exception to this general trend is in the regions with lower incomes and unsafe foods, where evidence suggests that increased consumption of meat, milk and eggs would improve health outcomes.”
Professor Wells, whose book, Metabolic Ghetto, discusses the many benefits of growing more of our food, also talked about what human diets might look like by the end of the 21st century.
He said: “I hope that future human diets will be more organic, more locally produced, more plant-based. I would expect pet foods to still be part of the human diet, but I hope they will contribute to a much smaller share of overall consumption, especially in high-income countries, and I hope their intake much more will happen equally among the world’s population, for those who are not completely vegan. ”
While diet, to some extent, has to do with individual choice, governments and companies play crucial roles in shaping food production, and perhaps this is where fundamental change is most urgently needed.
Creating policies to promote responsible and sustainable methods of food production does not belong to consumers, but to governments, which have the power to do things on a large scale within a short period of time.
In 2019, scientists writing in Lancet Planetary Health the magazine called on governments to implement a major restoration of natural vegetation on land currently used for meat production. This, they said, was the “best option” for removing CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere.
They said high- and middle-income countries wishing to meet the terms of the 2015 Paris climate agreement should adopt policies including declaring a timeline for peak livestock; identifying the largest sources of livestock emissions and setting reduction targets; measures to diversify food production by replacing livestock with sustainable foods that maximize public health benefits – mainly legumes (including beans, peas and lentils), cereals, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Going vegan or cutting down on meat and milk will not be enough to prevent the climate catastrophe itself, but it is a vital step in the right direction and people will need support from the state, companies and other organizations for them. achieve this.
To read more about how our species can respond to the climate crisis, read The Independent’s 14 ways to fight the climate crisis after the publication of the IPCC warning “Code Red”.