The challenges of eating sustainably
I’m on a transatlantic flight, and plenty of carbon, no doubt, is being released into the atmosphere to get me and the other passengers to our destination. But I’m also feeling slightly smug, and somewhat virtuous: I receive my meal before the rest of the packed cabin, it’s delicious (curry), and it’s a dinner with low-carbon impact. I chose a Hindu vegetarian meal, something I’ve been doing ever since I witnessed another passenger get handed a similar meal on a flight a few years ago. That person has no idea how he changed me with his simple act. To my taste buds, the vegetarian curry is miles better than the chicken (which often feels rubbery) or roast beef (which is often dry) that’s typically served on flights.
It tastes better, and it’s better for the planet. So, why aren’t we all eating sustainably? And why don’t I do it (much) more often?
For one, it can take more time and effort to make veggies and legumes taste as rich and flavourful as meat and dairy. And it’s meat and dairy, we’re repeatedly told, that are doing some of the most harm to our planet — more than cars, for example, and more, in fact, than the emissions from all of the transportation sectors combined. We raise enormous numbers of livestock, one billion cattle worldwide by the latest count, and as many as nine American states have more cattle than people (South Dakota leads the list with 4.6 cows per person). Raising that livestock comes with its own emissions.
As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations points out, emission intensities vary from commodity to commodity. They are highest for beef, followed by meat and milk from small ruminants. Cow’s milk, chicken products and pork have lower global average emission intensities.
Raising livestock also uses up land for grazing that might otherwise sustain forests and plants — natural, indigenous vegetation necessary to remove carbon from the atmosphere, protect soil and provide habitat for the creatures that keep our ecosystems healthy. Upwards of 45 percent of available land worldwide is used to raise livestock and their feed, while only 5 percent is used to grow crops that are directly consumed by humans. However, that 5 percent provides 80 percent of the calories that humans consume.
All this is taking place beyond our sight. In modern life, we’ve lost track of where our food comes from. Michael Pollan, author of 2006’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, said during a recent talk at RSA House in London, “This story of where our food comes from, 75 years ago, you could not sell a book about that because everybody knew where their food comes from. They were directly involved with agriculture or they knew somebody who was and they’d been on farms.”
Today, we know little about the source of our food, unless we purchase ingredients at farmer’s markets or shops that list the source of the products they carry. Many grocery stores are not set up to help us make smart choices; and choices that are good for our health are often those that have the least impact on the planet. Grocery stores can bombard and confuse us, by highlighting products from which they make the most profit (ones that are cheap, mass-produced and filled with preservatives to extend their shelf life). From the moment we step through the door, we’re bombarded by pitches for foods that are unhealthy and placed front and centre to catch our attention.
We’ve placed our trust in these stores to feed us, and in the process, we’ve lost sense of where our food comes from. As writer, farmer and poet Wendell Berry says, “The effort that is growing and has grown to foster local economies, starting with local food economies, is hope-giving. Growth of farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture farms, and growth of an awareness in the cities of some kind of duty to those proxies they’ve given to other people, to raise food for them.”
In letting “them” raise our food for us, we have also lost the joy of preparing it ourselves; takeout, ready meals and ultra-processed foods are just too easy. Yet, they have little or no resemblance to the plants or animals from which they claim to be derived. Fast foods, produced en masse and for the masses, are high in crave-ability but are also addictive with high fat and sugar content, and produced using unsustainable practices that make them cheap, readily available and visually attractive.
This all gets so discouraging: we’ve lost the source of our food and we’ve lost our connection to preparing it. The system is broken. But how to restore it? Meal by meal seems like one realistic possibility. Trying to set a goal too large or grand often pre-determines failure — think of all those broken New Year’s resolutions. Instead, try committing to one lentil-based soup or stew a week; or to trying one month without eating red meat to see what other substitutes can be found. Or maybe try a month of eating only local foods. Culinary creativity can flourish under these circumstances. (I speak from experience: who knew a homemade lentil, cauliflower and coconut curry would be more satiating and memorable than almost any meat-based dish I’ve tried?) Also, new relationships can be formed — with your local butcher, farmer or beekeeper.
It’s all about slowly and steadily becoming more mindful about what we eat, with an eye towards our health, our satisfaction and the future health of the planet. One tip offered by American author and environmental activist Bill McKibben is to eat “Lower on the food chain.” When I asked if he thinks we can have any impact on climate change by switching our diets to vegetarian, or vegan, or pescatarian, or some other regime, his answer was sober. “As individuals, nothing we do will truly have a big impact. It’s when individuals come together in groups to change policy that we have some hope of leverage great enough to make a difference at this late date.”
But, just as our resolutions need not be too grand, so too should be our goals. Individuals can lead by example, changing the hearts and minds of those around us by feeling authenticity in our actions when we chose to respect our values, and what science tells us about the impact our current behaviour and lifestyles are having on the planet.
Some who lead by example are the many chefs and professional cooks who draw attention to these issues, and strive to provide a sustainable eating experience at their restaurants. At the acclaimed Hollows restaurant in Saskatoon, for example, chefs Christie Peters and Kyle Michael create incredible dishes that change with the seasons. Their mouth-watering mission is: “Our food is made with the best ingredients we can find in our area: cultivated plants grown from heirloom seeds, wild-harvested leaves and mushrooms, flowers, sap and roots, local fish — sustainably raised, pastured meat, poultry and eggs from small farmers.”
There are also solutions coming from technology, including plant-based meat substitutes created in labs, to look, feel and taste just like meat. Some of them are delicious, and actually quite convincing. For instance, I was recently fooled by Impossible Foods’ meat-less “meatballs” at an eatery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In the end, being mindful of what we eat means cutting back on foods that take much more land, water and emissions to produce. Eating meat less often, and being more thoughtful about the meat you eat, also serves to make it more special, more of a treat — rather than a product consumed with little thought, and often twice a day in rich countries.
As British writer and environmental campaigner George Marshall has said, “destructive activities should not be disregarded or demeaned but actually given greater respect.” When I contacted him, he added, “We should be mindful of what we eat, respect where it comes from, savour what it gives us. Doing so takes us in different directions. It may take it away from meat or it may take us towards occasional meat eaten with respect. Either way, it is very different from wolfing down piles of low-grade industrial product.”
Eating mindfully is not only satisfying to the senses, but staying true to your values is satisfying to the soul. And, like my experience witnessing someone else order a vegetarian meal a few years ago, it will likely set an example that others will follow, one meal at a time.