Food for thought: how each of us can help to change the world
For nearly a decade, I have been inviting friends and acquaintances in Delhi over for dinner once a week. I find that people are often their best selves over food — or while cooking for others.
Usually, I cook up a big pot of red meat or chicken for the occasion (with the occasional extra dish of chickpeas or dal if there are any vegetarians). Partly, it is because I like to, and partly it is because I know guests expect it.
In most countries, meat is the most expensive food and is, therefore, the cornerstone of hospitality. We associate meat eating with feasting and having a good time, with pleasure and well-being. People come together over food — but they really come together over kebabs, goat curry or chicken korma. Just recently, though, in my 40th year, I’ve started to wonder if this is the only way to cook for a special occasion.
Growing older has many disadvantages — the aches and the pains, the responsibilities of looking after both parents and children — but it does bring a wider perspective on many things that one did unthinkingly in the past.
For people my age, the single biggest difference between the worldview of our generation and that of our parents is the knowledge we live on a rapidly warming planet and that the main cause of this ecological crisis is humanity itself. We have benefited from all the advantages of a globalized world, including instant access to new technologies, the growth of virtual networks and cheap(ish) travel to far-off continents. At the same time, we have come to realize, much more starkly than our forebears, how every decision we make has consequences not only for ourselves, but potentially for the future of the planet.
In our globalized world, food and climate are inextricably linked
And so we need to think about how and what we eat. After all, much of the talk about the impact of climate change has a doomsday air about it. During two centuries of industrialization, humanity has filled the atmosphere with carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Unless governments and international institutions take grand, shared steps to cut back immediately on the carbon economy, we could be hurtling toward disaster by 2050 — or sooner.
It is difficult to imagine that there is anything a single, puny human being can do that could help ameliorate such a crisis. But there is. To an extent that few of us realize, the answer lies right there in front of us, on our plates. For much of human history, across all civilizations, meat was extremely scarce. It was eaten in large quantities by a small number of elites, while the middle class and the poor used it in tiny amounts as a condiment — a few bones in soup, or a little fat in a stew.
Over the past 50 years, as livestock began to be bred, killed and sold on an industrial scale, all that changed. Meat, succulent and boneless, with all the ugly work of slaughter and skinning performed behind closed doors, became part of every meal in the West, and increasingly everywhere else. Global meat production has quadrupled in the past half century, according to research by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. In Asia, where most of the global population rise has occurred, it has multiplied by a factor of 15 times.
The main change in the world food system in the past 50 years, therefore, has been the swing toward meat. This has huge consequences for the planet. Raising and feeding livestock requires the appropriation of valuable land (often forests) that could otherwise have been left untouched or used for growing crops (which themselves hold carbon in the soil when grown with the right tree cover). Growing and feeding grain to cattle to produce beef is a much more resource-intensive way of producing food than simply eating the grain itself. And cattle release significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere in the process of digesting their food.
As a consequence, livestock production has become the second-largest source of greenhouse gases in the global economic system, after energy production. According to estimates by the World Resources Institute, total worldwide emissions from beef production are roughly on a par with the total emissions from all sources in India.
It looks like we are going to add two billion more human beings to the planet by the middle of this century — can we really afford to continue to eat the same way we do now?
As consumers, we can change the world by putting sustainable food on our plates three times a day. This does not mean a swing back to vegetarianism as sharply as that seen in recent decades to meat. All it requires is that we consume meat more mindfully, in smaller quantities, and with an awareness not only of its store price but also of the ecological footprint left by every morsel.
Much of what we need to learn about the ecological impact of our food choices (the things that the big food companies will not tell you) is now readily available in reports and books. “Nourished Planet,” for example, recently published by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition in Washington, D.C., contains a wealth of information about sustainability in the global food system.
In our globalized world, food and climate are inextricably linked. “Broadly speaking, eating fewer meat and dairy products, and consuming more plant foods in their place, is probably the single most helpful behavioral shift one can make to reduce food-related greenhouse-gas emissions,” said Tara Garnett, head of the Food Climate Research Network,
Such changes in consumer behavior will eventually lead to shifts in production patterns, too.
These days, I still cook a big pot of stew or curry for dinner parties, but containing only 300 grams of meat instead of 2 kilograms, cut into small pieces and used more as a flavoring agent than a centerpiece. I want my social relations to become warmer — not my planet.
- Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweets