Our food system, essentially omnivorous, is not sustainable any more: it is responsible for 37% of the total greenhouse emissions. Plant-based nutrition is a great alternative and a choice which is more and more necessary: many are its advantages. What if this change could be an opportunity rather than a limitation?
By Mayra Boscato | YPA Italy
I clearly remember the perception I had some months ago when, going into a supermarket I was desperately looking for a package of tofu and I got shocked in front of the empty shelf. Not only the natural tofu that had finished, but also the basil one and almost all the other plant-based alternatives which are usually available: from the veggie meatballs to the chickpeas burgers. I clearly remember my contrasting feelings. On the one hand I was angry: I had to think about an alternative for dinner. On the other hand, I also felt a pleasing sense of surprise and gratitude: we, as consumers, were choosing something different at the point that the plant based shelf was almost empty.
Nutrition represents an essential part of our life, but the twentieth century food system is not sustainable any more. The greenhouse gas emissions connected to the food system exceed 37% of total emissions, overtaking this way the transport sector (18,5%) and the heating one (23,6%). In addition to that, it is also important to underline the incredible waste of water resources that it implies as well as the consequences on deforestation and the loss of biodiversity. Not only our planet feels the effect of the food system, but also animals and, to tell the truth, humans do. The Barilla Center estimates that more than one third of food is lost or wasted. If, on the one hand, more than 820 million people are affected by hunger, on the other one, two billion people are overweight or obese. Generally, we eat 7 to 8 times more of what we should: this also influences the chance to develop cardiovascular or respiratory diseases.
A plant-based nutrition, while contributing to reducing emissions, would not only have positive effects on human health but also on the environment and ecosystems in general, since it would imply a major conservation of biodiversity and a more conscious and sustainable use of resources. Moreover, by opting for this kind of diet, it could be possible to put an end to the intensive livestock industry which causes indescribable pain to animals. As such, it is also an issue of justice: plant-based nutrition would allow us to feed a higher share of the global population and in a more sustainable way.
As a different diet can make the difference in terms of environmental impact, it is fundamental that the consumer is aware of their contribution and of what it consists of. Su-Eatable Life, a European project that aims at reducing the environmental impact connected to our food lifestyle, has developed eight key principles at the base of a healthy and sustainable diet besides some indication for a nutritionally balanced diet.
“The youth and consumers are willing to change habits to tackle climate change”: states Cecilia Mc Avealey that, during the conference “From Farm to Fork” represents Oatly, a danish company that produces oat alternatives to dairy products. In order to achieve a concrete change, it is necessary that research and innovation on plant-based products is facilitated and enhanced also through subsidies. In fact, at the moment, the value-added tax on vegan products is between two or three times higher than the other products. It is essential to create conditions in order to develop a non-discriminatory market where consumers selecting plant-based options are not penalized. Another critical aspect, evidenced again by McAvealey, concerns the prices of these products that are often misleading: according to her, it would be better to put numbers of carbon footprints on each product. In order to be considered sustainable, a meal should have a footprint in between 0.80 and 1 kg CO2 meal/g; while the hydro footprint should be between 700 and 1000 liter meal/g.
Moving to a plant-based diet is a significant and necessary decision but, at the same time, it can feel drastic and hard. For this reason, companies try to provide solutions that encourage consumers to modify their diet. GreenApes, a benefit company, creates apps where users can share their actions, ideas and green advice with the community, thus inspiring each other and gaining points through which they can get eco-prizes and discounts. The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), instead, is a NGO that supports more than 8000 restaurants and stakeholders from the food industry through sustainability assessments, consultant services and training aiming at making sustainability at the heart of the food system, consequently helping people understand what makes food good. Indeed, plant-based nutrition entails completely different flavors. McAvealey notes the necessity to empower chefs: they have to be trained in order to make them understand what is the “climate kitchen” and how it works for the purpose of making tasty food.
As a matter of fact, in addition to the good reasons for shifting to a plant-based diet, there is a need to consider the opportunities brought about by this variety and new tastes. New products can be discovered, new combinations among ingredients…and it is easy to feel amazed by looking at a colorful plate or by staring at a fruit and vegetables market desk. And you can feel happy by thinking that, even in a small way, you have contributed to the transformation. This way, change can become an opportunity rather than a limitation.
- Antonelli M., Riccardi G., Valentini R. COVID-19: The imperative of a global food system transformation (The Guardian, 21 giu 2020)
- Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition