What On Earth

It will take more than a food guide to curb the food industry's effect on climate change, says researcher

Our choices about the foods we eat make “a huge difference” on the environment, and governments should enact strong food-related policies to help the fight against climate change, according to food researcher Marco Springmann.

'Just telling people what to eat doesn’t really work,' says Marco Springmann

Vancouverite Fabrice Retiere grew up in France and loves his meat and cheese. But the man once known to his friends as 'Sergeant Sausage' is adding more plant-based foods to his diet in the interest of lowering his environmental footprint. (Rachel Sanders/CBC)

Our choices about the foods we eat make "a huge difference" on the environment, and governments should enact strong food-related policies to help the fight against climate change, according to food researcher Marco Springmann.

"What the literature seems to indicate is that just telling people what to eat doesn't really work," said Springmann, senior researcher with the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food.

"Governments have tried to do that with dietary guidelines, but hardly anybody knows what the dietary guidelines in their country are," he told What on Earth guest host Lisa Johnson.

Springmann is part of the EAT-Lancet Commission, a global group of scientists who developed the Planetary Health Diet. It's a "combined policy package," in Springmann's words, that includes guidelines for healthy eating and sustainable food production that's good for the climates as well as ourselves.

"Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth," reads the commission's summary report, published in February 2019, adding that "a radical transformation of the global food system" is needed to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.

Marco Springmann is a senior researcher with the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, and member of the EAT-Lancet Commission. (Submitted by Marco Springmann)

Canada was one of 194 countries that adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015, which pledged to keep the global average temperature increase to well below 2 C, with the ultimate goal of limiting the rise to only 1.5 C.

It EAT-Lancet's report recommended economic incentives that encourage the production and consumption of plant-based protein over animal-based protein, improving food labelling and promoting healthy and sustainable foods in the education system — both in classrooms and cafeterias.

Greenhouse gas emissions from animals

According to Springmann, our food choices have far greater implications than just our personal health or grocery budget.

"At the moment, the food system is responsible for more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. And the majority of those emissions are due to animal source foods, in particular beef and dairy," he said.

Canadians, he said, eat about seven times more beef than the Planetary Health Diet recommends.

"If everyone in the world would eat like a Canadian, we calculated that you would need approximately five Earths just to dilute the greenhouse gas emissions from the food system, provided all other sectors stay the same," he said.

When reached for comment, the Canadian Cattlemen's Association said that per kilogram, their carbon emissions are much lower than the global average.

Springmann confirmed that EAT-Lancet found Canada's beef footprint is below the global average, but it was still "50 to 100 times" greater than the footprint of plant-based proteins like beans or lentils.

"The fact that Canadian beef production is a bit more efficient than the global average doesn't really mean anything in terms of the relative difference between the animal source foods and plant-based foods," he said.

The association also said that Canadians purchase about 18 kilograms of beef per person each year. Meanwhile, the Planetary Health diet suggests people should only eat 2.5 to five kilograms of beef per year, which the association called "extreme and difficult to sustain."

Changing attitudes about eating meat

It might not surprise many Canadians to learn about our collective love of meat. But that attitude appears to be gradually shifting, according to a 2018 survey conducted by Dalhousie University researchers about our attitudes to different kinds of protein.

About half of the 1,027 respondents said they eat meat every day, but about 32 per cent said they've considered reducing their meat consumption over the next six months.

About half of respondents said they considered eating meat a fundamental right, though younger respondents were less likely to agree with that statement.

Donelda Rose, left, and Vesanto Melina helped prepare a meatless meal for their cohousing complex neighbours, including Retiere, with help from their rooftop greenhouse. (Rachel Sanders/CBC)

Vancouver resident Fabrice Retiere is trying to change up parts of his lifestyle in the interest of the climate.

It's a big shift for Retiere. Originally from France, meat and cheese were a huge part of his diet growing up. He used to bring dried sausages and other hearty foods to parties.

"My nickname was Sergeant Sausage," said Reitere.

Now he's "trying to make an effort to reduce our impact. So on food and on everything, not using our car as well, at least not in the city. So we've, I think, cut beef and lamb quite a bit."

More than guidelines

At the core of the Planetary Health Diet is a circular diet graph, half of which is filled by fruits and vegetables, with whole grains and plant-sourced proteins taking up most of the other half. It does allow for some animal-sourced protein and dairy.

The diagram bears some resemblance to the most recent version of Canada's Food Guide, which was rolled out by the federal government in 2019.

It also encourages eating more fruits and vegetables as well as whole-grain foods, and focuses on the proportions of different types of food in your diet as opposed to food groups and recommended servings.

The Planetary Health Diet suggests most adults follow a diet of roughly half fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, plant-based oils and protein, and some animal-based protein and dairy. (EAT-Lancet Commission)

"I do think that it is a really positive step forward, especially insofar as it encourages people to think about food a little bit more holistically and less formulaically in a way," said Angela Lee, an assistant professor at Ryerson University's Faculty of Law who specializes in food and agriculture law.

But both Lee and Springmann say it will take more than food guides and information campaigns to put a significant dent in the food industry's effect on the climate.

Other tools could include reducing industry subsidies that have kept prices for animal-based products low and stable and transferring them to plant-based products.

"Certainly we're seeing now that the price of fruits and vegetables has sort of steadily increased over the past few years. And yet the price of animal products has not necessarily fluctuated to the same extent," Lee said.

Angela Lee is an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s Faculty of Law who specializes in food and agriculture law. (Submitted by Angela Lee)

The Food Guide was only one component of Canada's new national food policy, which outlined multiple objectives meant to "help Canada build a healthier and more sustainable food system."

"This includes things like helping Canadian communities access healthy food, supporting food security in northern and Indigenous communities, and reducing food waste," Lee explained.

"These kinds of considerations are things that law and policy should be more actively trying to incorporate in thinking about how we can create a more just, sustainable, equitable food system for everyone."

The policy soon came under fire, however. The Dairy Farmers of Canada decried the fact they were not consulted in the development of the new food guide. In the lead-up to the 2019 federal election, former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer pledged to review the guide

Tax the rich (and beefy)

Lee noted that so-called "sin taxes" on junk food and sugary drinks have shown to be effective "in certain countries and in certain contexts" at shifting consumer behaviour away from these kinds of products.

"I think that there are interesting parallels that we can draw with carbon taxes, and the debates that we're seeing going on right now … about the constitutionality of those kinds of taxes and so forth," she said.

Springman said it would amount to "less of a tax than really a full pricing" that takes the environmental impact of producing meat products into account.

"At the moment, the consumer just doesn't see those high environmental or health impacts that a food product has. So in economics, we call that a market failure," he said.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Lisa Johnson, Molly Segal and Rachel Sanders.

(Ben Shannon)

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