Balanced diets: The way we eat threatens us all unless we change

The world will have to reduce its consumption of meat by 90% to stave off climate change, according to the ‘Lancet’ medical journal.

I wouldn't often say this, but a farmers’ representative stopped me in my tracks the other night. He was on the 9 o’clock news on RTÉ, and this is what he said, as far as I can recall: “We have to control what we’re doing,” he said. “We can’t continue to increase our emissions the way they’ve been increasing this last number of years.

One thing I know: I’ve never seen grass growing at Christmas before in my life. So anybody who tries to tell me that climate change isn’t real, I don’t believe them. It’s happening.”

I guess he wasn’t a typical farmers’ representative. Gerry Loftus was his name, and, according to the organisation’s website, he’s the Mayo chairman of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers’ Association.

They represent farmers on marginalised and designated land, farmers who had no-one else to speak for them. Their aim is to keep family farming viable.

I don’t know if Gerry Loftus represents a change. Certainly, his lone voice was drowned out by the “official” famers’ voices last week, who were rendered apoplectic by two things. The first was the Lancet report that called for the elimination of meat from our diets, not just for our health, but to combat climate change. The second was the assertion by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, that he was trying to eat less meat, because he wanted to be a good boy for the climate.

Why they were bothered by the second, I just don’t know. The Taoiseach clearly said the first thing that came into his head when he was asked about carbon footprints. He had enough wit to acknowledge that every time he stepped on a plane, he was undoing whatever benefit derives from years of meatless meals. (Though even then, his FG advisers were quick to let him know that he’d better tell the farmers he’d had a fine big steak the night before.)

The Lancet is a different proposition. More than 150 years old, it is one of the world’s most respected medical journals. Apart from one serious blemish, when it originally published the fraudulent anti-MMR vaccine study by Andrew Wakefield, it has had a remarkable record of telling scientific truths.

However, my reaction, when I heard the news reports that the Lancet was calling for a 90% reduction in meat-eating, or else the heavens would fall in, was disbelief. Who on Earth is going to believe that? And how, even if we did, could it possibly be accomplished without devastating damage to economies throughout the world (including, spectacularly, our economy, which is already threatened by the chaos being unleashed by mad Brexiteers)?

But there’s always a difference between being shocked and alarmed by news reports, on the one hand, and actually reading the study, on the other. That’s what I decided to do. I’m both glad and sorry that I did.

First of all, it’s not that easy to access the report; you have to register for The Lancet on its website (it’s free), and then you have to accustom yourself to words that you don’t understand. Sorry, I shouldn’t be presumptuous: words that I didn’t understand.

My first and biggest stumbling block was the title of the report. It’s called ‘Food in the Anthropocene’, and, immediately, I had to go and look up what ‘Anthropocene’ meant.

The Anthropocene, it transpires, is us. It’s that period of the world’s history during which humans have been in control of change and have had a significant impact on the environment.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure when it began — some say with the Industrial Revolution — but an increasing number of them are sure that the Anthropocene won’t turn out to have been a good idea at all.

Climate change is, I guess, the single biggest part of what we’ve done. But food is fundamental, too. Two paragraphs from the executive summary tell a good part of the story.

Unhealthy and unsustainably produced food poses a global risk to people and the planet. More than 820m people have insufficient food and many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and morbidity. Moreover, global food production is the largest pressure caused by humans on Earth, threatening local ecosystems and the stability of the Earth system.

And: “Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts, including a greater than 50% reduction in global consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and a greater than 100% increase in consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. However, the changes needed differ greatly by region.”

There’s a shorter way of putting this. The way we eat threatens us all, and perpetuates a huge disparity between different parts of the world and different people in the world. We simply have no choice but to find a much better balance. And if we don’t do it in the next 30 years, there may be no going back.

That’s stark and it’s frightening. If we don’t, bit by bit, start to change our habits, individually and as societies, we’ll leave a terrible legacy for our children and grandchildren.

That’s not the same, though, as saying that we have to cut down eating meat immediately and totally.

Even if we wanted to do that, we can’t, without doing huge short-term damage. But we do all have to look at our lifestyles, and wonder what we’re doing to the world.

This is me saying this. Many of you are much more aware of all these things than I am, and are way ahead of me in terms of decent lifestyles.

Me? I can’t conceive of life without sirloin steak and red wine. I’m overweight, unfit, and my wife tells me I don’t even stand up straight. I’ve never taken this stuff seriously enough in the past. I’ve even scoffed at other people’s efforts.

So, I might be disqualified from preaching about solutions, because my attitudes make me part of the problem.

Almost the only thing I can say in my defence is that I’m married to a woman who does take these issues seriously, who insists on proper methods of recycling, who takes dietary advice seriously, who demands that we treat our climate with respect, who is passionate about food justice.

Without her, I’d just be a hypocrite who won’t practice what he preaches.

But hypocrite or not, it is essential that we dig beneath the headlines, and absorb the real lesson. It’s not just our insatiable demand for profit that is destroying the world’s climate and perpetuating terrible imbalances, it’s also our own individual greed.

If you read the Lancet report, you mightn’t immediately remove meat from your diet. But you’ll start to think harder about all the damage we’re doing, day after day. A few days ago, I didn’t know what the Anthropocene was. Now, I know that we started it, we control it, and we could well bring it to an awful end.

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