Food is personal. Yet our choices have global impacts. As individuals, we may feel as if we have little control; and yet, we do. As consumers, we have the power of demand. As consumers, we also have the responsibility to be aware that our actions impact other people and our world.
In 2020, to address globally agreed scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production, the EAT Lancet Commission convened 37 leading scientists from 16 countries in various disciplines – including human health, agriculture, political sciences and environmental sustainability – to develop global scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production. This was the first attempt to set universal scientific targets for the food system that apply to all people and the planet.
Politics aside, most everyone believes that global warming is one of the greatest threats to our world today. Agriculture, the production of food we eat, has an enormous impact on the warming of our planet and the change we see in climate.
The report from the EAT Lancet Commission found that food production is responsible for up to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions – from the combination of food production and the land-use changes associated with farming, such as clearing vegetation and plowing – and these greenhouse gas emissions in turn contribute to the warming of the planet.
While consideration of transportation of food is important and supporting local food sources is a positive force in many ways, the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions related to food is from production.
According to a study of U.S. food emissions by Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the main sources of carbon emissions come from:
- Food production: 83%.
- Wholesaling and retailing food: 5%.
- Transporting food: 11%.
Highlighting the critical importance of results that focus on both health and environmental impacts, co-chairman of the commission, Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, wrote the following in the report’s introduction:
“Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts. Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such a red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.”
Plants and Plant-based Diets
There are plenty of ways to put this advice into practice. For years nutrition scientists have advocated that improved health comes with eating more fruits and vegetables, beans and whole grains. Food writer Michael Pollan beautifully condensed this advice into seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
At Oldways, we teach about the power of cultural food traditions – plant-based diets that reflect the culinary traditions of cultures from around the world – Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American, African Heritage. These traditional diets – culinary old ways – are delicious road maps to healthy eating and rediscovering the joy in eating, without succumbing to deprivation or guilt. Importantly, in addition to better personal health through heritage diets, these plant-based diets are a step toward better health for the planet.
Restaurants and Plant-Forward Menus
A number of wonderful organizations have created programs to promote these ideas within the chef and restaurant community, health professionals and also with consumers. The Culinary Institute of America has tackled these issues through a number of programs, including Menus of Change, which provides leadership, tools and guidance for the food service industry about the power of changing menus to improve human and planetary health.
Similarly, starting in 2016, the World Resources Institute’s Better Buying Lab has brought together leaders in the food world, consumer research, behavioral economics and marketing strategy to develop strategies to help consumers eat more plants and less animal products. They’ve also created resources to help chefs and restaurants, such as Playbook for Guiding Diners Toward Plant-rich Dishes in Food Service.
Institutional Food Service and Plant Foods
Plant-based meals are also taking hold in institutional food service settings. In California and New York, for example, state regulations require hospitals to provide patients with a healthful, plant-based option at every meal – surely a sign that the wheels are truly turning toward plant-based eating. To support this effort, Oldways and dietitian Sharon Palmer developed Plant Forward Plates, a free downloadable toolkit for food service professionals to provide delicious, therapeutic 100% plant-based meal options in hospitals and healthcare food service settings.
We also work together with a coalition of organizations to support hospitals and healthcare food service departments that are working to train their staff and shift their menus to be plant-forward.
Marketing and Selling Plant-based Proteins
According to the Hartman Group, an ethnographic research group that examines consumer behavior and food and beverage cultures, “plant-based products are no longer a niche lifestyle choice but are a prominent feature of mainstream food culture.” They report in their 2019 Health + Wellness Report that 36% of consumers say they are adding or increasing plant-based protein in their diet.
With consumer demand changing, the food industry is catching up with a variety of plant foods. Non-dairy milks and yogurts made from nuts, soy, rice, coconut and oats now fill the dairy case. For those wanting to eat only plants, many vegan protein options exist. Those wanting the taste, texture and flavor of meat, can eat “meat” made from plants.
Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are creating meat-like products made from soy and potato protein, or pea, rice and mung bean protein. The options are sure to expand in quality and quantity. Consumers can even do it themselves thanks to the abundance of cookbooks focusing on vegetarian and vegan recipes to replace traditional meat-based ones.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimates that one-third of the world’s food production is wasted before it gets to consumers. Food waste relates to sustainability in a number of ways, some having to do with production and distribution that individuals have less direct control over – overproduction and processing, for example. However, consumers do have the power to work to reduce food waste in their own lives.
For consumers, smart buying habits and food preparation are the first step. To do this, purchase and prepare only what you need and use all parts of your food – from “root to leaf.” For example, don’t discard carrot or beet greens, include them in a stir-fry or soup. In addition, if you prepare more than you are going to eat in a meal, embrace leftovers.
By reducing the amount of food that ends up in landfills, you reduce greenhouse gas production. Food that is landfilled breaks down in a way that creates greenhouse gases, including methane. The UN FAO calls methane a “greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide.”
Actions That Make a Difference
The takeaway messages remind us that individual choices matter.
- For human and environmental health: Eat more plants and less meat and sugar. At Oldways, we recommend fruit for desserts.
- Cultural models for healthy eating – plant-based heritage diets – are a way to put this into practice.
- Restaurants and institutions like hospitals are making changes toward serving more plant-based meals. This where consumers can make a difference through what they order and by advocating for the addition of plant-based options if they’re not already available.
- Innovations in food production systems and products such as plant-based meats can play a role the solution, but are far from the only solution.
- Buy and cook only what you can consume. Eat leftovers. Compost, which reduces food matter in landfills.
We’re all part of a larger village. We can all make a difference in addressing health and climate change through our individual food choices.