Health, society & the environment - Who will win?

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By Chloe Tartan

In a world of rapid technological advances, our society has been blessed (or cursed, some might say) with the infinite knowledge available to us by virtue of the world wide web. With the birth of the internet came an era in which trends go viral quicker than ever. One fashionable trend that has emerged over recent years, and which is forecasted to be the food trend of 2018, is veganism. More and more people are opting for plant-based diets. High profile individuals including the likes of actor Brad Pitt and ex-president Bill Clinton, alongside tennis champion Venus Williams and boxer Mike Tyson, are among the many that have publicly supported the vegan boom. But how much do we really understand about the impact and sustainability of our diets? What would happen if the entire world population opted for a vegan diet? The answer is more complex than the most ardent plant-lovers (myself included) might think, both in an environmental and social context.

The environmental-social dilemma

Aside from the obvious arguments regarding concerns over animal welfare, agriculture is the most energy intensive sector with livestock accounting for 51% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. A plant-based diet has numerous environmental benefits from cutting your carbon footprint and conserving water, to saving animal and plant habitats and cleaner air. Scalability for mass production however is nontrivial since grazing lands are unsuitable for growing crops. Quinoa is a good example when considering the social impact of plant-based diets. The rise in demand for quinoa over recent years, which was originally the staple diet of the poorest Peruvians, spurred on European farmers to start growing the highly sought-after plant too. Now, with a lot more supply and plummeting prices, Peruvian farmers with their outdated farming techniques are lagging behind their newest rivals. Not to mention the environmental and social burden of farming soy…

What about health and nutrition?

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Veganism has numerous associated health benefits that lead to a reduced risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes to name a few. Yet studies have shown that eliminating meat from our diets altogether can lead to malnutrition, since certain essential nutrients are found only in animal products. With the world population growing at unprecedented rates, how can we walk the fine line between environmental and social impacts of our diets whilst ensuring that we receive all our key nutrients? One potential solution could exist in the realm of lab-grown meat. This cruelty-free alternative involves cultivating animal fibres from stem cells in a sterile lab environment. A study from the University of Oxford found that clean meat production could lead to a 78 - 96% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, use 7 - 45% less energy, 99% less land, and 82 - 96% less water than conventional methods. The in-vitro meat company Memphis Meats has been gaining traction as business giants Bill Gates and Richard Branson invested $17 million in the startup in 2017, alongside large meat conglomerates Tyson Foods and Cargill Inc. The main obstacle to market is currently production costs, not to mention the ick-factor that many associate with the unnatural process of cultivating meat in the lab. I suppose the saying ‘you are what you eat’ might raise some eyebrows in this context. Nonetheless, the pros far outweigh the cons so it might be worth considering next time a steak is on the menu.

What next?

Irrespective of what your lifestyle choices may be, the key takeaway here is that we need a better understanding of the tradeoffs associated with different diets in low-, middle- and high-income countries. I certainly wasn’t taught about the environmental and social impacts of my dietary preferences at school. Perhaps it’s for the policymakers to make a real difference. Educating the next generation is essential if we are ever to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to end world hunger.  Now that’s food for thought…

For more information on sustainable diets and the health-social-environmental nexus, check out Principles for eating meat and dairy more sustainably: the ‘less and better’ approach.