Environment

Agriculture has changed the planet – now we need to change our diet to protect it

Our diets have to become more sustainable to avoid further ecological destruction – so let's return to the eating habits of our ancestors

Earth Day

Illustration by Mateusz Napieralski

On Christmas Eve 1968, William Anders took what has been described as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”. Anders was aboard Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to leave the Earth’s orbit. He and his crewmen had spent several days studying the lunar surface, taking photographs from their capsule, their attention trained upon the naked expanse below. But then it occurred to Anders to look up. “This gorgeous, colourful, beautiful planet of ours [was] coming up over the ugly lunar horizon.” Anders turned his camera towards the rising planet Earth.

Anders’ Earthrise provided the first photograph of our planet from space. The image was instantly iconic and the defining image of the first Earth Day, held in 1970.

Half a century later it is sobering to look back at that image, for in the intervening years our world has been transformed. The composition of the biosphere has been altered by human activity such that our planet now looks visibly different when seen from space. The deep green of rainforest has given way to the grey of urban sprawl and the yellow of agricultural monocrop. The Great Barrier Reef has markedly shrunk. Blooms of phytoplankton have flushed the ocean an unusual shade of blue, while the Arctic has grown greener, the result of enormous ice-melt and global heating.

These planetary alterations have been driven in large part by agriculture – and especially by animal farming. The way that we eat has transformed every facet of the living world. Around 77 per cent of all agricultural land today is used for livestock or the crops that feed them. Since the inaugural Earth Day the global farm animal population has tripled while wild animal populations have declined by two thirds, and these trends are squarely related. Humans and our livestock now make up 96 per cent of the biomass of all mammals on the planet. Wild animals make up a mere four per cent.

Cattle ranching and the production of soy for animal feed are the number one drivers of tropical deforestation, while human carnivory – our appetite for meat – is a leading cause of habitat loss and species extinctions.

Scientists have called for action in response to this extraordinary shift in the balance of life. Yes, they say, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and embrace clean energy technologies. But if we are to avoid further ecological destruction we also need to change the way we eat. These changes have been translated into a ‘planetary health diet’, designed to feed everyone while protecting nature. The proposed diet represents what most people will need to consume if we are to collectively resolve the ecological crisis while nourishing a growing population.

Most importantly, scientists say, we need to stop factory farming animals and prioritise organic and nature-friendly production. In the UK, most of the pigs and chickens that we consume have been factory farmed, so this will require a sizable shift in the way that we eat.

In a sustainable future, animal foods might still be consumed, but in reduced volumes. The average person in the UK will need to eat at least 50 per cent less meat and dairy, with plant proteins and healthy veg making up most of the food on our plates.

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There may be an important role for novel technologies. Researchers are developing ‘lab-grown’ meat grown from animal cells, and edible fats and proteins produced via ‘precision fermentation’ from microbes. These technologies are still at an early stage of development and it’s too early to say whether they can be scaled, but the signs are promising. In the meantime, most of us need to rapidly shift towards a healthy, plant-rich diet.

This might sound like a tall order, but in centuries past plant proteins were staples of the British diet. Fava beans, marrowfat peas and large blue peas formed part of our national cuisine, as roast beef and chicken nuggets do today. And these forgotten foods are set to make a comeback. Farmers are beginning to grow green lentils, chickpeas, and quinoa in British soils. A new wave of culinary talent is updating centuries-old dishes such as pottage stew and bean casseroles for the modern palate.

Government has an important role to play in encouraging these changes. The first action they should take is to ensure that the food served in schools and hospitals is locally procured and aligned with the planetary health diet. Shouldn’t every child have the right to a healthy and sustainable school lunch? Imagine if every hospital was buying British, serving piles of veg with higher welfare meat.

Confronted with a changing world, it may be that the answers to tomorrow’s crises are found in our food heritage. Our “gorgeous, colourful, beautiful planet” is being transformed at an alarming rate, and we all have a role to play in crafting a more sustainable future. Why not play your part? Celebrate this year’s Earth Day by experimenting with plant proteins. Get busy with beans and creative with chickpeas. Think outside the box. Eating for the planet might sound daunting, but you may find it can also be delicious.

Rob Percival is the author of The Meat Paradox and Head of Food Policy at the Soil Association

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