Conservation: we are what we eat

Living as I do in a northern European city, it is tempting to think of conservation as being something that happens ‘out there’ in tropical forests and coral reefs, with no connection to my everyday life. But on our increasingly globalised planet, the consumption choices that I and my fellow citizens make really do have a significant impact on biodiversity all around the world. A clear example is provided by the question of what we choose to eat and drink. There is overwhelming evidence that the ‘normal’ diet enjoyed by the world’s rich, and desired by the world’s poor, is highly damaging to biodiversity. Livestock are fed on soy grown on land cleared from forest. Fish are harvested using trawling technologies that devastate marine life. Tea, coffee and oil palm all replace natural forest, even when they are certified as biodiversity friendly. A recent article in Science makes the claim that “human carnivory is in fact the single greatest threat to overall biodiversity” because of the huge amounts of space and energy that go into meat production. More recently it has been claimed that giving up beef would reduce our carbon footprint more than giving up driving cars.

Given all this evidence, it might seem reasonable to expect that highly damaging food and drink products are being taken off our menus and supermarket shelves through a combination of regulation and consumer pressure. But of course this isn’t happening – far from it. So what is going on? Why is there not a sensible public debate about the relationship between food and nature? I recently took part in an event at Homerton College in Cambridge to discuss this issue, organised by Luciana Leite de Araujo, one of my fantastic Conservation Leadership students. I shared the stage with my colleague Ben Phalan, who knows far more about these issues than I do. This blog is an attempt to distil my thinking after the event, and to propose some ideas for a way forward.

The first big question is, why do most people persist with diets that are so clearly damaging to the environment? Some people just don’t care about nature and are blinkered about the long term impact that unsustainable behaviours might have on human wellbeing. They see no reason to worry. Other people want to do something but struggle because the relationship between diet and nature is really confusing. Some foods are directly bad for biodiversity (e.g. because of forest loss). Others are indirectly bad for biodiversity (e.g. because they are associated with high water consumption or emissions of carbon dioxide). Some have negative impacts on other things that people care about – animal welfare, human rights, our health. Some foods are good for some of these things, but bad for others, or good in some places or cases but bad in others. For example, Laurance et al. argue quite reasonably that meat is an important source of protein needed for good health by people who are not over-nourished, and that meat production is the most appropriate agricultural land use in ‘marginal’ lands not suitable for crops. So meat and animal products aren’t always bad.

Given all this complexity, making the ‘right’ choices is not easy, no matter how strong the desire to do so. But the problems facing the wannabe sustainable consumer are even greater, because they have to battle against a whole range of social and cultural factors that actively promote diets that damage nature. In countries like the UK the whole economy is set up to promote damaging patterns of production and consumption, and we are bombarded every day with advertising and messages from politicians encouraging us to consume as much as possible in order to grow the economy and generate ‘wealth’. We literally overfeed ourselves in order to metaphorically feed the economy. On a more personal level there are strong cultural norms in favour of things like meat consumption – serving a vegetarian meal to dinner guests still carries some risk of appearing rude in the UK, and would be unthinkable in many countries. People are understandably very sensitive about their right to decide for themselves what they eat, making it dangerous territory to criticise others for their diet.

So what should consumers do? This is a very complicated topic, but I would like to make some simple suggestions. First, doing nothing is a bad option. The status quo diet in all developed countries and for many people in developing countries is very damaging, and this should not be ignored. Second, whilst doing everything is a good option, it is very difficult to put into practice. Scrutinising every label, asking about the ingredients at every restaurant and spending hours online doing background research is great for those with the passion and the determination, but surely it isn’t reasonable to expect enough people to do this to make much of a difference.

The ‘third way’ is to do something, but not everything. This is a compromise, but it is one that could still make a very big difference. Under this strategy I think it is helpful to adopt some rules of thumb about dietary choices that can be applied fairly easily across the board without having to spend hours trapped in a supermarket aisle pondering what to do. For example: become a vegetarian, or eat less meat. I’ve been doing this for about a year now by eating no more than four meals containing meat or fish per week. I’ve found that this allows me to carry on eating good food with my friends and family, whilst cutting out all kinds of processed ham sandwiches and tasteless chicken. I hope soon I will have the determination to go fully vegetarian, but for the time being I have reduced my meat/fish consumption by probably 3-4 times and it hasn’t affected my quality of life at all.

How might changes in eating habits be promoted? One approach is to use ‘nudges’ to promote less harmful choices. For example, could all event catering (workshops, conferences, business lunches) be made vegetarian by default, with the choice available to opt in to meat, rather than the norm which is to opt out from it? This is neat in that it doesn’t actually change the choices available, so nobody could complain that their obligate carnivory is being made impossible, and I bet it would make a big difference to the proportion of people who end up eating meat. We successfully implemented this idea (with no complaints) for the Cambridge Conservation Forum events last year, and I am arguing for this approach to be taken up in my own organisation.

Another approach is to lead by example and thereby inspire others to follow. In this regard I think most people would expect the conservation movement to be showing the way. Unfortunately this is not the case. I think the proportion of vegetarians among conservationists is probably a little higher than the wider population average, but I have been surprised on many occasions by the enthusiasm with which my conservationist colleagues tuck into the king prawns on the conference buffet table or the beef sandwiches at a workshop lunch. I am not alone in this observation. What is going on here? Are conservationists ignorant of the impacts of their food choices, suffering from a serious case of cognitive dissonance, only concerned with the protection of their particular species or habitat of interest, or drawing a line between the content of their work and the physical matter of their body? Whatever the answer, I find it rather depressing, and telling, that conservationists are not doing more to lead by example.

In a recent article in the Guardian, Zoe Williams argued that those working in the environmental movement should not be expected to be perfect in their own behaviour. She says that “The aim is to work towards better systems, not to exist in this system as superior people”. I think she is right, to the extent that conservationists cannot be expected to live completely different lives from other people, making sacrifices at every turn. However, I think that if they are asking for a ‘better system’, conservationists must surely be willing to do something to demonstrate that change is possible. Is that too much to ask?

The evidence for the impacts of food choices on nature is getting stronger every day. It is now time for everybody to start taking some action, and conservationists should be leading the way.


16 thoughts on “Conservation: we are what we eat

  1. Valid points but how do you see this being incorporated into the lives of athletes or people who train 5-6 times per week (i.e. me) who require decent calorie intake of nutrient efficient food (i.e. not bread, rice, pasta but fish meat eggs avocado etc). Especially if they believe or at least recognise some of the valid points of paleo/primal diets. Take intensive agriculture of grain off the table and what do you eat? There are good arguments and studies for avoiding grains/pulses for better health. I’m not saying these are hard facts but paleo isn’t just a celebrity gimmick diet, it may well revolutionise our medical thinking (I’m a medical doctor and I know how rigid standard medicine is to new ideas but the studies against wheat/grains are mounting and even if you’re not a coeliac they’re starting to suggest that you could still benefit…)
    Training for sport, paleo lifestyle and ethical conservation eating habits: I’d genuinely like to hear how you feel these could be reconciled. Because I agree; doing something is better than nothing but your 3-4 meat meals a week won’t wash with my training/paleo lifestyle.

  2. Great blog raising some important points. I’ve been an ethical omnivore for over four years now – eating a reduced quantity but increased quality of meat, fish and animal products, not just for environmental but also for animal welfare, health and equity (c. a third of global grain and seafood harvests being fed to mostly factory-farmed livestock) reasons. In practice that means I eat only certified-organic meat and Marine Stewardship Council seafood (making the assumption that these mostly meet the concerns outlined above and internalise costs more effectively than non-certified equivalents). I therefore eat meat/fish about 3 out of 7 meals in the week, on average.
    In responding to Spike’s valid comments, I also train fairly seriously 5-6 times per week including long and short distance running, rowing and calisthenics. I don’t know enough about paleo/primal diets to comment on that side of things, but from an exercise and training perspective my switch to ethical omnivory doesn’t seem to have affected my fitness or training.
    One other tangential comment in relation to this debate: adopting a quality-over-quantity approach to meat consumption is also an effective way of conserving livestock biodiversity. Many traditional breeds thrive in extensive, low-input systems, and in intensive systems focused only on short-term financial results cannot compete with the highly-bred performance athletes that are modern livestock breeds. But by eating less and eating better, the weekly roast (or whatever it is) becomes an opportunity to marry the pleasure of eating quality meet with the pleasure of conserving biodiversity. What’s not to like? It’s certainly a new angle on the old debate about sustainable use/conservation through consumption.

  3. Another thought – grow some of your food yourself. I’m in the U.S. (in the Midwest) where our population density doesn’t rival that of the UK, but I believe there are still plenty of opportunities there to work in a garden (allotment or other). Raising your own food has so many beneficial effects it is difficult to list them all.
    Your own personal costs for food production become apparent. Food changes then from being something traded for wages to something you participate in creating (much the same as cooking a meal from scratch vs buying prepared foods or eating at a restaurant). Learning enough about food production to grow something in your own place on the planet increases your personal knowledge base and helps one appreciate food production dynamics in general.
    Eating something you have grubbed in the earth to grow can impart a sort of spiritual refreshment as well – though some may balk at this particular notion if the term ‘spiritual’ if somehow off-putting. But placing yourself immediately into the biological cycle – observing the whole of the process at arm’s length – is very rewarding.
    These remarks pertain most directly to plant production, but similar results can be derived from husbanding animals as well. Though I’m guessing more and more folk would increase their sympathies toward a increased level of vegetables in their diet if made to kill the animals they intend to eat.

  4. The simple answer to ¨why do most people persist with diets that are so clearly damaging to the environment?¨is disconnection. Most people are no longer connected to the land and farming so have no idea of the environmental costs of the food they eat. Lack of connection means no feedback, so people will literally and obliviously, eat their way through the environment that they depend on for their survival. Agro ecology in its various forms (agroforestry, organic farming, and permaculture) together with the move to replace supermarkets with local markets, are positive steps being taken to address the problem.
    Developing simple monitoring systems and product labeling that enable consumers to assess the real cost of their food in terms of things like CO2 emissions, water and soil nutrient use and forest conversion would help to rebuild the broken feedback mechanisms.
    Other ideas for creating a paradigm shift in food consumption might come to mind after consideration of Donella Meadows “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” Redistributing the power over the rules of the system implies breaking the power of the supermarkets and replacing them with local markets. Changing the goals of the system implies overhauling policies that regulate the production and marketing of food. These are no small tasks but are being undertaken by numerous people and small organizations across the UK. Here are a few examples:
    The Transition Movement
    Fife Diet
    Gaia Foundation
    Centre for Agroecology and food security
    Sustainable Food Trust
    Oxford Real Farming Conference
    Anybody who is concerned about the impacts of their food habits on the environment can get behind one or more of these organizations, put their shoulder to the wheel and start pushing.

  5. Why is it hypocritical for a conservative preacher to cheat on his wife but not for a conservationist to eat a Brazilian steak or Bluefin tuna sushi every day? Food is one of the areas where we have the MOST agency in our lives (we may not be able to control how we transport ourselves to work or our local grid energy mix), yet it is such a challenge to get people to take a more Sustainable path. You had a lot of great points:
    -There probably is no perfect diet for Sustainability but you can do a lot real easily (like eating less meat)
    -Transition slowly. I spent about 3 years getting to full vegetarianism (I eat meat less than 1/month).
    -I really liked your idea of making a vegetarian meal the default, meat eaters having to opt in!

    Also I have found myself focusing on quality over quantity as the other commentator mentioned- that could apply in many Sustainable consumption areas.

    • Aaron:
      I think it IS hypocritical (at least at some level) for a conservationist to behave as indicated. From where I sit I think the distinction is not so much the absolute of IS or IS NOT, but a measure on a broader scale.

      Consider a conservationist who prattles on endlessly about the horrors of ‘food miles’. Said scientist goes off as high and mighty judge, pointing fingers and ladling out hyperbole like it were manna from heaven. Then, for all to see our intrepid conservationist sits down to dine on the Brazilian steak at a restaurant in Seattle. That is blatant hypocrisy.
      Now consider a local Seattle school teacher who volunteers with conservation related groups in her community. She works quietly alongside others to make a better world. If she happens to be at the same restaurant – and happens to order that same steak… how much of a hypocrite can we suggest she is?

      • Yes, it is definitely not an either or when it comes to hypocrisy or the Sustainability of your food choices. In fact, I doubt that any of us living and working in the developed world could truly make the claim that we are living in a way that could be replicated 7 billion times without breaking the planet’s social and ecological systems. As Chris acknowledged in his post, his food consumption wasn’t perfect but he was honest about it and striving to improve it. That type of honest self-assessment may go against human nature but if the those in the scientific community are not up to the task than who will be?

  6. Pingback: SustainabLINKS August 11, 2014 | Achieving Sustinability

  7. Broad cultural shifts in diet can take a long time. But even small diet changes can make a big difference to our planet if enough of us do it. So,
    1. Eat LESS meat and encourage everyone around you to do the same.

    2. GROW your own food where possible. Even growing herbs & salads in pots (if you have little space) can reduce grocery bills, transport costs, food waste. Start or be part of a local community garden!

    3. Find out where food comes from – and TALK to others about it.

    4. Buy local, buy organic, buy fair trade, buy sustainably farmed – where you can. Increase the demand for different modes of food production.

  8. As an agroecologist I have just as much problem with those who promote the consumption of grains and vegatables as they have with those who eat meat. Is it any less hypocritical to consume grains grown on prairie lands that were once vast grasslands populated by immense herds of buffalo? Is it any less hypocritical to consume vegetables grown on dyked floodplains at the mouth of every major river on the planet, that was once marshland that nurtured a diverse population of waterfowl that numbered in the hundreds of millions? Our hunter gatherer ancestors consumed both plants, (mainly in summer) and meats without destroying the environment.

    Only 1.1% of British Columbia, where I live, has soil capable of growing vegetables and small fruit. An additional 4% has poorer soils good for grazing and some tree fruits. Do we stop grazing livestock on the 4% and drain the few remaining estuaries we have to produce fruit and vegetables? I have some experience in this regard as our family drained the marshes at the mouth of the Fraser River to establish Western Canada’s first seed company back in 1877. Or do we import more from other countries and they drain their marshes or clear more forests? Or do we legislate population control and ban immigration to reduce the population? None of these solutions are acceptable. Waste less food, consume less food, consume grass fed, free range meats and eggs, and enjoy your beef while crunching on a carrot grown on destroyed habitat.

    • Harlod,
      What you are describing may indeed be the case for B.C. but on a global scale it takes far more land to support a meat heavy diet than a grain/vegetable-based one. Whether it is the Amazon (for grazing and soy), Iowa’s vast cornfields used for feed (that used to be prairie lands) or the grazing of fragile Arizona deserts, animal production consumes vastly more habitats than grain for direct human consumption does. That being said in an ideal world animals would be a key part of our food system, both for their value in ranging on non-farmable land and integrated with plant production (manure etc). But our current levels of meat consumption could never be supported by this “ideal” integrated food system, therefore as a society we have to cut back. Personally, if I could trust the provenance of meat, I think that eating it once a week or so would indeed be a more “sustainable” diet for me.

      • Agreed, but also, land is increasingly being used for growing biofuels and cereals for human/animal feed at a rate that is not only unsustainable but completely excessive and unnecessary. I have just counted over 100 different biscuits and snacks varieties on Tesco’s biscuit isle. Do we really need that much variety? I don’t even want to check how much of this ends up being unsold and thrown away.

        We don’t consume a vast amount of what we produce. Meat is highly perishable so if one has bought their meat for the week but it smells funny or forgotten in the overstuffed fridge, that meat will go into the rubbish bin, and this happens a lot more often than with other types of food. Comparing the overall cost of wasting a pound of meat to wasting a pound of kale, it is obvious which one is more unsustainable. Not to mention the health benefit of not consuming a premade lasagne which has poor quality meat content and vast amounts of sugar and salt.
        However, people remain convinced that they need animal protein for healthy life and not only that but a lot of people simply like to eat meat and feel entitled to consume as much as they can afford. And market economy operates on supply and demand, not on sustainability principles. In a year of lots of rain which makes the corn harvest perform poorly, the predicted harvest deficit will affect everything except the availability of store availability of popcorn or sugary snacks. Regulating the trade in commodities has been on the agenda of the sustainability lobby for a while but somehow it just never happens. I mean, would you give up your exotic holidays for ever so that a village in Amazon rainforest doesn’t disappear into oblivion?

  9. Pingback: A Paradox Grows into a Conundrum - Achieving Sustinability

  10. Pingback: The [endangered] elephant in the room | femlightened

Leave a Reply to Mike Jones Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s