If you love nature, it’s time to prove it. Forget walks in the countryside and watching David Attenborough documentaries – to show you genuinely care for the natural world, you must change the way you eat for the greener.
A new report makes it clear that plant-based diets are the “most crucial” part of a plan to halt and reverse the damage done to the environment by a global food system that prizes profit over the health of the planet. The mindless pursuit of the bottom line is degrading nature and destroying wildlife, habitats and biodiversity – agriculture is the main threat to 90 per cent of 28,000 species at risk of extinction.
The world has lost half its natural ecosystems since 1970, according to the report, written by the think tank Chatham House and supported by the UN environment programme, and the average population size of wild animals had fallen by 68 per cent. Three-fifths (60 per cent) of all mammals on Earth, by weight, are now farmed animals.
In short, cheap food comes at a heavy cost, because the way we are feeding ourselves today will mean we are unable to do so tomorrow. Luckily the report suggests three connected “levers” for reducing pressures on land and creating a more sustainable food system: plant-based diets, restoring ecosystems and less intensive farming.
A move away from cheap animal products to a diet heavy on fruit, vegetables, legumes and pulses would mean fewer belching and farting livestock – food production accounts for almost a third of the world’s emissions of harmful greenhouse gases, and more than half of that is down to animals. “The convergence of global food consumption around predominantly plant-based diets is the most crucial element,” according to the report.
The vast tracts of land this would open up (globally, four-fifths of farmland is used for cattle, sheep and poultry) would allow local ecosystems such as native forests and peatland to be restored, improving biodiversity and helping wildlife flourish – if shoppers in America bought beans instead of beef, 42 per cent of US cropland would be available for rewilding, for example. Intensive farming techniques would then have to give way to organic, but that would require an acceptance of lower yields.
Professor Tim Benton of Chatham House said it was time for global leaders to move beyond such short-term considerations as how much their voters pay for food and to consider the environmental and health costs of pushing prices ever lower.
“Politicians are still saying, ‘My job is to make food cheaper for you’, no matter how toxic it is from a planetary or human health perspective. We must stop arguing that we have to subsidise the food system in the name of the poor and instead deal with the poor by bringing them out of poverty.”