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.