Eating our way to a healthier planet

Eve Turow-Paul & Sophie Egan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Yeast, vegetable seeds and local farm boxes are new hot-ticket items. Windowsill scallions are having their moment in the sun. People are exchanging tips on how to use every bit of food in the fridge, how to pickle and preserve. While these new habits and hobbies make for engaging Instagram stories and a motivation to call your grandmother, they’re important for a much bigger reason: these new interests are exactly what Mother Nature needs from us.

Amid the chaos and fear of the coronavirus pandemic are signs of a global community ready and willing to take action on the other emergency looming: the climate crisis.

Changing how and what we eat is a powerful – yet often overlooked – tool for climate action. Reducing food waste is the No 1 solution for reversing global warming. Eating plant-rich diets ranks No 3. Those are the conclusions of Project Drawdown, a non-profit group of scientists, activists and others that has compiled the most promising ways to address the climate crisis. Food-related changes can make a greater impact than the approaches most widely touted by environmentalists, such as solar panels and electric vehicles. This means that those yearning to make a difference need to look no further than the kitchen.

The conveniently great news is that what’s good for people often happens to be good for the planet. “Food is the single strongest lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability on Earth,” concluded the EAT-Lancet Commission, a group of 37 leading transdisciplinary scientists from 16 countries.

We tell you this not just as superfans of science, but as two new mothers. The moment you bring a human life into the world, once-vague notions of “sustainability” and “natural resources’’ take on real meaning. Will my children and their children live in a world with enough fresh water, rich topsoil and wildlife habitat, one with peppy pollinators to keep our food supply thriving? And, as parents, we’re shaping little people’s habits, so our choices have a multiplier effect.

Before covid-19, millennials were already sounding the alarm on climate breakdown and collectively driving the rise of “foodie” culture. As experts who have spent more than a decade interviewing youth around the world about the role food plays in their lives, we know that all of the raw ingredients are here at this moment to empower young people to use their market muscle to push for food that’s better for both human and planetary health. Yet, the concept of climate-friendly eating has yet to break through into the zeitgeist. So, what prevented climate-beneficial eating from becoming the norm in American food culture precrisis? We’ve gotten the messaging all wrong.

All too often, climate-related initiatives aim to motivate through statistics and fearmongering. Yet, information alone doesn’t change habits – just look at the flat rates of fruit and vegetable consumption in the United States, despite decades of very well-intentioned, creative campaigns focussed on education. And tales of an apocalyptic future often trigger difficult emotions that can turn people off instead of sparking action.

We’ve also found that sustainability campaigns and products commonly target a small, elite audience, and leave others waiting in the wings, concerned about the climate, eager to contribute, but without easy ways to participate. The messaging has also been alienating more broadly through all-or-nothing framing; in reality, there are many meaningful ways to be a conscious eater without going full vegan – be it through buying a greater diversity of edible seeds and plants or using animal proteins as a garnish rather than the main course. These communications potholes have pigeonholed sustainable food as niche instead of mainstream. But now is the time to democratise sustainable food.

We founded the Food for Climate League, a new non-profit organisation, to redefine sustainable eating and help businesses, non-profits and governments promote food that’s good for both humans and the planet. Supported with seed funding from [email protected], and leaders involved from Unilever, Sodexo and Future Food Institute, our team has expertise that spans culinary arts, food systems and behavioural science. We are spearheading new ways of talking about and engaging eaters around the beautiful diversity of affordable, delicious food that’s great for us and the planet. Our approach can be championed by leaders around the world so that sustainable food offerings can finally gain the traction they deserve, and all of us can play a role in tackling the climate crisis.

At this moment, the global pandemic is causing us to shift our eating habits. Some are adopting chickens and planting victory gardens. Others are feeding sourdough starters and watering sprouts. Many are discovering a wider diversity of flours, legumes, fruits and vegetables as they substitute foods to compensate for bare grocery shelves. These are the seeds of a sustainable food system: people investing in regional suppliers, home cooking, careful meal planning, heritage foods and plant proteins.

But people are not taking on new rituals due to altruistic aims of sustainable living; they’re engaging in activities that happen to be climate-friendly because they’re affordable, nutritious, connect us to our local and online communities, and provide a sense of accomplishment.

Behaviour change is hard, especially when it comes to something as personal as what we eat. It’s often said that culture change can take years – generations even. It’s hard to break routines, even with the best of intentions. Just think of all the times you’ve pledged to exercise more or get more sleep. But these new food trends have emerged in a matter of weeks.

Times of disruption – be it a breakup, a move to a new city, or a global pandemic – are when behaviourists said we’re most likely to start a new lifestyle habit. As we emerge from stay-at-home circumstances, each of us will decide how to shape new patterns of daily life.