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Going vegan to save the environment

Renowned Israeli historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari described agriculture as history’s biggest fraud. Nature already provided humans with everything that was necessary. Nevertheless, we started to domesticate animals and plants, thinking that we were going to have a better life.

Thousands of years later, several studies show that not only this lifestyle isn’t offering a better diet but it is also polluting the environment.

In 2018, the Oxford University authored a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health, explaining how a well-balanced and predominantly plant-based diet can lead to improved nutrient levels, reduce premature deaths from chronic diseases and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In fact, today’s food supply chain creates around 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2eq), 26 per cent of anthropogenic GHG emissions. Furthermore, a plant-based diet would also lead to reductions in cropland use and freshwater use.

Within the European Green Deal framework, the European Commission recognised the importance of a healthy and sustainable food system, the reason why it launched the Farm to Fork Strategy: it addresses comprehensively the challenges of sustainable food systems and recognises the inextricable links between healthy people, healthy societies and a healthy planet.

“The coronavirus crisis has shown how vulnerable we all are and how important it is to restore the balance between human activity and nature,” said Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission. “At the heart of the Green Deal the Biodiversity and Farm to Fork strategies point to a new and better balance of nature, food systems and biodiversity; to protect our people’s health and well-being and at the same time to increase the EU’s competitiveness and resilience. These strategies are a crucial part of the great transition we are embarking upon.”

But to reach this transition, people’s diets must change. While about 20 per cent of the food produced is wasted, obesity is also rising. Over half of the adult population are now overweight, contributing to a high prevalence of diet-related diseases. If European diets were in line with dietary recommendations, the environmental footprint of food systems would be significantly reduced.

In particular, the European Commission aims to reduce by 50 per cent the use and risk of chemical pesticides by 2030. Also, the excess of nutrients in the environment is a major source of air, soil and water pollution, negatively impacting biodiversity and climate. The Commission will act to reduce nutrient losses by at least 50 per cent while ensuring no deterioration on soil fertility.

Following the Farm to Fork Strategy, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) conducted a survey on consumer attitudes towards sustainable food. 

It showed that, although consumers are already changing their habits towards more sustainable diets, for instance by reducing their red meat intake and buying more organic food, a truly sustainable food system requires substantial change. Consumers tend to underestimate the impact of their own eating habits, with on average 63.6 per cent disagreeing that their food habits have negative effects on the environment. Almost 45 per cent of consumers said to be willing to change their eating habits towards more plant-based foods. But, at the same time, more than a third are unwilling to eat less red meat.

BEUC recommend that public awareness, particularly concerning the environmental impact of people’s food choices, must be increased. Especially the adoption of more plant-based diets through positive messaging and more meat-free options in catering and hospitality as well as by providing alternative protein sources is encouraged.

Although going vegan is mainly a Western European’s trend, some cities of Central and Eastern Europe are becoming increasing vegan-friendly. According to online bloggers and vegan restaurants listed on HappyCow, Prague, Warsaw and Budapest can also be included in the vegan map.

In particular, with a population of only 1.26 million people, Prague comes up in the top 5 of most vegan restaurants per capita in the world. 

The health benefits are undeniable. Marco Springmann, a senior researcher of environmental sustainability and public health at the University of Oxford, who led the above-mentioned study published in The Lancet Planetary Health, says that a balanced vegan diet is one of the healthiest diets. According to him, the vegan diet is higher in fruit, vegetables and legumes and “the health benefits from this compensate anything else.”

And for those who cannot give up eating meat, experts are also pointing out at insects as one of the possible future trends. Duncan Sivell, a scientist at the Natural History Museum, says that whether we’re eating insects or using them as animal feed, cultivating them requires “less space, less feed and generates less greenhouse gas.”

However, Europeans are not ready to ingest mealworms, grasshoppers or giant ants. Better to explore vegan recipes online and, as Mr Springmann advised, eating plenty of fruit and vegetables with a variety of colours, nuts, whole grains and beans and lentils, as well as chia, hemp and flax seeds.

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