Plant based diets are all the rage in the west, mainly due to their proclaimed health benefits, but they are also hot on the agenda at COP. As a vegetarian of 25 years, who has personally seen ebbs and flows of enthusiasm for the diet over my life time, I was particularly looking forward to watching one of the side events ‘The mitigation potential of plant-based diets: from science to policy’ (13/12/18).
Global meat consumption has risen by nearly a quarter in the last decade and is expected to continue to rise as developing countries adopt more affluent countries’ dominant eating patterns, heavy in meat and dairy. This is a worrying trend as the meat industry is responsible for 70% of rainforest destruction and the emission of 7.1 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per annum, which equates to 14.5% of total global emissions.
If we carry on with this status quo attitude to eating we will not be able to feed the world on our available resources by 2050, when globally populations are expected to hit 10 billion. This is because modern meat production is in itself a highly inefficient process. In order to produce just 1kg of meat containing 2000 kcal, 8-10 kg grain of grain are required with 30 thousand kcal energetic equivalence. So whether we believe vegetarian diets are healthier or better for the environment, arguably we actually need to adopt them simply to prevent global food shortages.
However there are potential knock on effects of this eating revolution. A transfer to mostly vegetable based diets will cause an increase in lands used for cropping which have lower levels of biodiversity, soil retention and carbon storage, compared to permanent grazing lands. In addition, the impact of healthy, vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian diets in the western world is having negative effects on the availability of food stuffs in developing countries.
Avocados hit the news last year due to shortages in Mexico and Central Africa where this fruit is a mainstay of local eating habits. One of the ‘superfoods’ of the western diet revolution, demand for avocados in the European Union is 150 times more than it was a decade ago. Mexico now make more money on exports of avocados than crude oil, and the price per kilo equals the average national daily wage. So, in our bid to be healthy we risk the decline of nutrition in poorer countries. We must also ask if locally grown food, rather than health food imports, is better for everyone – even if animals are used in the process.
This is obviously an extremely complicated subject which requires an interdisciplinary, cross-sector approach to resolve, but one thing is for sure, veggies are on the up!