“Seven blunders of the world that lead to violence:
wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character,
commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice,
politics without principle.
—Mahatma Gandhi (2 Oct 1869—1948)
Everyday I receive A.Word.A.Day in my in-box. It’s a free subscription that invites me to survey a single word, its origins, and other associated linguistic features. One of the extras in this week’s email was the Gandhi quote above. As I went about my morning, Gandhi’s notion about “blunders” resonated with me, and I reflected about why eating plants isn’t the norm. After all, it really is one of the most effective ways to save the planet from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We might think differently about the value of plant-based eating if we consider the social and historical legacies about the food we eat — status, capitalism, diets, meals, food as reward/ entertainment — and how plants fit into that framework, via Gandhi.
Plant-Based Eating and the Golden Era of US Agriculture
A small but diligent segment of the CleanTechnica audience was nurtured on the American heartland as it was in the late 1940s — cows grazing on grass, a citizenry fed by small farming families, unpatented crops. The nostalgia of a rural utopia where sweet-cold-fresh milk and artisanal cheeses were just a mere walk to the barn away is, however, a fallacy. It’s a symptom of a false perpetuation of the American Dream where rough individualists forged a livelihood so that we all could live healthier and fundamentally better lives than the rest of the world.
In the western world, we have a systemic deficit when it comes to food. We fail to remember that we live in a consumer society where the food that is supposed to nourish and sustain us is a commodity to be bought and sold. Food is part of an equation that reaches well beyond nutrition and which embraces considerations like profit margins, futures, market-based safety nets, and long-term investments to support continuing economic growth.
Food is produced and processed by millions of farmers and intermediaries globally, with substantial associated environmental costs. Producers have limits on how far they can reduce impacts. Most strikingly, impacts of the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes, providing new evidence for the importance of a pervasive dietary change to a plant-based diet.
Why a Plant-Based Diet Supports the 2 Degree Threshold
Signatories to the Paris Agreement on climate created a now-familiar goal: “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.” The window for hitting 1.5 degrees is rapidly closing, and we must make up our minds to begin to live sustainably through what we eat.
A report from researchers Poore and Nemecek at the University of Oxford points to one significant solution to meet the 2 degree threshold — avoiding meat and dairy products. They say that this is the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact on the planet. Meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, yet they use the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produce 60% of agriculture’s GHG emissions. The report indicates that, without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%.
To identify solutions that are effective to address food’s environmental impacts under the heterogeneity that is created by millions of diverse producers, Poore and Nemecek conducted an extensive study of environmental indicators, farms, processors, packaging types, and retailers.
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” Joseph Poore, who led the research, said in an interview with The Guardian. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions. “Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems. Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”
Their 2018 research seeks a new approach to food systems transparency in which producers monitor their own impacts, flexibly meet environmental targets by choosing from multiple practices, and communicate their impacts to consumers.
Wealth without Work — Fixing Food Systems
Enter in Gandhi’s Seven Sins, albeit adapted to food systems. Any attempt at transforming something as big as the global food system will require us to understand how food is at the core of many social and environmental issues.
As Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank, discussed during her talk during the 2018 EAT forum — which is a science-based global platform for food system transformation — of ultimate importance is bringing together communities that normally don’t talk to each other. She explained that cohesiveness is part of a larger picture in which we need to understand and acknowledge how good stewardship of the planet is a prerequisite for human wellbeing.
Georgieva outlined how, “when it comes down to growing food, it is so absolutely paramount that we do it in the most sustainable manner, that we don’t use more of the planet than we have to.” At the World Bank, much discussion surrounds the food systems of today and what they will look like in the future. She said a confluence of “people — planet — prosperity” promotes the skills, capacity, and productivity of people at the center stage of food production.
She calls upon the wealthiest countries in the world to assume greater responsibility for food systems that benefit all the planet’s citizens. “When it comes down to growing food, it is so absolutely paramount that we do it in the most sustainable manner so that we don’t use more of the planet than we have to.”
The good news is that there are myriad ways we can make a meaningful impact on global food systems through the plant purchasing food decisions we make. The basic principles of a whole-foods, plant-based diet, according to Healthline, are:
- Emphasizes whole, minimally processed foods
- Limits or avoids animal products
- Focuses on plants, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, which should make up the majority of what you eat
- Excludes refined foods, like added sugars, white flour and processed oils
- Pays special attention to food quality, with many proponents of the WFPB diet promoting locally sourced, organic food whenever possible
The analogy that applies to Gandhi’s “Wealth without Work” sin is the story about the good King Midas, who wishes that everything he touches might turn to gold. Dionysus grants the request, and Midas discovers that he is unable to digest 24-karat cheese or 12-troy-ounce turbot.
Yes, it will take work for us to shift to cultural acceptance of plant-based eating, but, if we rethink various food production systems, we can reverse current trends that will result in 2050 diets with an 80% increase in GHG emissions from food production as well as habitat destruction due to land clearing for agriculture around the world.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll fit more of Gandhi’s seven sins, such as Pleasure without Conscience, Knowledge without Character, and Commerce without Morality, into a framework of food. Who knows? Maybe our health will be increased while GHG emissions are reduced by an amount equal to the current GHG emissions of all cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships.