How much do you know about the food on your plate? How does it impact on you and the world around you?
After quitting meat at 12 years of age I thought I knew my fair share about farming. Well I knew a lot about animal welfare issues but as it turns out not so much about the social and environmental impacts of agriculture.
So what do we know? Carnivores and vegetarians alike can save the environment by switching to organic and local right? Wrong. It’s just not that straightforward.
Food is one of the few things we can’t opt-out of. We can stop taking long haul flights, we can stop using plastic bags but we can’t stop eating, so we have to get smart about it.
Food for Change is refreshing. At Food for Change you will find an intelligent, non-emotive perspective on food. In fact this isn’t just a perspective it tackles the issues head on and addresses how our eating habits could make a fairer, healthier society which truly respects the natural world.
So here at GGG we are very lucky to have some time to pick the brains of the Food for Change founder Sophie Pritchard. Prepare to have your food view turned upside down…..
Q. Sophie, welcome to GGG. Food for Change really is different to other websites, books and resources about food and the environment. How did it begin and what are your motivations?
Hello! Thank you for the opportunity to be featured on your brilliant website!
My relationship with food reached a turning point when I became vegetarian at the age of 11. In the beginning my choice not to eat meat was solely due to animal welfare issues; I lived opposite a farm and loved to watch the calves being born and one day I made the connection and then there was no turning back.
It wasn’t for another ten years that I started learning more about the other impacts of meat. While studying for a master’s degree in International Environmental Management I gained a much greater understanding of the environment and all the aspects of everyday life that affect it; one of those being livestock.
The initial idea for Food for Change was born around a year ago whilst I was working for an environmental and social justice organisation. Through my work, I discovered much more about the social impacts of environmental destruction and also the urgent need for us to live more sustainably to ensure our choices do not impact the lives of future generations. Meat and dairy are undeniably unsustainable, requiring far more land, water and energy than plant-based foods.
I became frustrated that environmental organisations continued to turn a blind eye to the environmental impact of livestock, particularly when both environmental and humanitarian organisations strongly and publicly oppose biofuels because of their environmental and social impacts when I knew that they caused only a fraction of the problems that the livestock industry does. I asked all these organisations about why they focused on biofuels, considering their impacts are the same as meat, but lower in scale. They all told me that the issue with biofuels was that they were making matters worse, whereas the devastation caused by livestock is long-standing. That didn’t seem like a good enough reason to ignore the issue to me.
Q. We all understand the issues of animal welfare in the livestock industry but you also address social, health and environmental factors. Can you briefly tell us how current farming and agriculture affects these areas and ultimately human life?
Briefly will be difficult since the list is a long one! I’ll try to keep to the main points.
Perhaps the greatest injustice is the amount of food we feed to animals. When I first heard that the vast majority of the crops we grow – a third of the world’s cereals and 90% of soy – are fed to animals, I was shocked. Today I still can’t quite believe we feed 754 million tonnes of cereals (1) and over 200 million tonnes of soy (2) to animals every year when there are over 950 million starving people in the world (3).
Much of the environmental and social impacts of the livestock industry come from the intensively farmed crops we grow to feed animals. Beautiful and biodiversity rich forests, such as the Amazon, are destroyed to make way for grazing cattle or growing soy to feed to animals. Intensive soy plantations use massive amounts of fertilisers and pesticides which poison the ground and waterways. Most soy is also genetically modified, particularly in the US, Argentina and Paraguay. The dairy industry in particular is keen to promote an image of cows grazing in lush fields in the English countryside, but the truth is that they are fed a diet high in soy and grains, as are other farmed animals.
Deforestation is responsible for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions (4), since trees release carbon dioxide when they are cut down and burned. Tropical forests are home to many thousands of species of plants, birds, mammals and reptiles. The forest also provides a home, food and livelihoods for indigenous people; all of which are brutally taken away when they are forced to flee the forest when it is cut down and converted to pasture or soy plantations. Many of them move to urban areas and struggle to adjust to a new way of life, resulting in poverty and hunger.
Ruminants like cows and sheep are also responsible for methane and nitrous oxide emissions which also contribute to climate change. In total, the livestock sector is accountable for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases (5). Climate change is already responsible for around 150,000 deaths per year (6) and an estimated 200 million people will be displaced because of droughts, floods and other weather conditions caused by climate change by 2050 (7). Those in developing countries, the most vulnerable, suffer the most despite the fact that they are least responsible for climate change.
Many studies have showed that animal products cause heart disease and cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund revealed that red meat, and in particular processed meats, are strongly linked to cancer – so much so that the recommended consumption level of sausages and bacon is none at all.
Saturated fats, which predominantly come from animal products, clog arteries and raise cholesterol levels and blood pressure putting people at risk of heart disease. What’s frightening is that fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King are expanding around the world, even to developing countries, resulting in a rise in meat consumption in countries where it has always previously been very low. Many developing countries don’t have National Health Services like we do, as their health deteriorates, not only do they not understand the cause of their disease, but also, they have nowhere to go for help.
Q. For anyone wanting to move towards having a more positive diet in terms of how it affects the environment what would you suggest as the first and most valuable step?
People are becoming more aware of the benefits of organic and local food. However, evidence shows that, environmentally, a vegan diet is far better than local and organic. Therefore, the best first step is to cut down on your meat and dairy consumption. Once you start exploring dishes free of animal products you soon realise how easy it is and this allows you to increase your number of meat and dairy free meals until you don’t consume any at all. Of course, not everyone is prepared to become vegan, and although this is the ideal, every step you take towards veganism makes a real difference.
Q. Sometimes we can make food choices which on the face of it seem to be harmless but are in fact very damaging. How can we learn more about the background to what we’re eating?
I’d like to say that the information is easy to get hold of, but in terms of the environmental and social impacts of meat and dairy, it’s well hidden. Food for Change has an email subscription service to keep you up to date on the latest news about the livestock industry and it’s impacts. I set the website up because this information just wasn’t readily available. I also provide links to other sources of relevant information. Groups like Friends of the Earth have a food campaign, focusing on genetically modified crops, and are a good source of information on wider food issues.
Q. How do you see our food shopping and eating habits 10 years into the future? What are the best and worst case scenarios?
I do believe that food habits are changing. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, one in ten people are actively reducing their meat consumption for health reasons. More people are also becoming aware of the issues of intensive agriculture and food miles, both strongly related to meat, but it’s a slow process.
My fear is that powerful fast food giants will continue to spread across the globe, increasing global meat consumption over and above that related purely to a higher level of population. Whilst industrialised nations will hopefully move towards a more sustainable and environmentally responsible diet over the next 10 years, the higher consumption of meat in developing countries could completely counteract this.
The good news is that Friends of the Earth launched a livestock campaign a few months ago and Greenpeace have started developing a campaign as well. With these highly influential organisations challenging governments and corporations on their role in the destruction caused by livestock I am optimistic that there will be some policy changes in the next ten years. But change also needs to happen on the ground. Individuals need to recognise the enormous power they have to change our world and not wait for governments to take action. This is where veganism is so powerful.
Whilst we don’t yet have the public transport system to allow us all to give up our cars, or cheap solar panels and other forms of renewable energy so we can all generate our own energy or the skills and planning infrastructure that allows us to build our own eco-homes; we can all switch to a plant-based diet right now, the world is already set up for it.
Visit Food for Change at www.foodforchange.org.uk
1. UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Crop Prospects and Food Situation. 2008.
2. Earth Policy Institute. Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. 2008.
3. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. High Level Conference of World Food Security. 2008.
4. UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Livestock’s Long Shadow. 2006.
5. UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Livestock’s Long Shadow. 2006.
6. World Health Organisation. 2000.
7. Myers, N. Environmental refugees: an emergent security issue. 2005.
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