An appetite for plant-based diets

| 24th March 2021 |
Adopting a vegan diet could be the biggest individual contribution to preventing climate breakdown - but we also need systemic change.

Systemic change doesn’t just result from individual action – it requires government intervention to encourage a societal shift to more sustainable consumption behaviours, interlocking with other urgent areas, such as conserving forests and land and investing in green jobs.

The largest ever opinion poll on climate breakdown, the People’s Climate Vote, was conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) earlier this year and established that two thirds of the people surveyed viewed the climate crisis as a ‘global emergency’.

It’s great to see that urgent climate action has broad support globally and across a range of demographics. But what has been most revealing is the insight into how people want policymakers to tackle this crisis.

The climate policies favoured are set to be shared with governments around the world ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) later this year and is a clear mandate to take the major action needed.

Deforestation

Where does a shift towards a more sustainable food system fall into this?

There is an increasing amount of academic evidence, such as that collated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that describes plant-based diets as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The the UNDP recognises this and the report highlights the need for further education on the role of plant-based policies in tackling the climate crisis, including how this would work cohesively with the other climate policies favoured.

The UNDP results suggest that the most popular climate policies globally were conserving forests and land (54 percent), more solar, wind and renewable power (53 percent), adopting climate-friendly farming techniques (52 percent) and investing more in green businesses and jobs (50 percent) - in contrast to the 30 percent of support received globally for switching to plant-based diets.  

It’s important to note how global context has influenced voter behaviour of those surveyed – there was greater support for the conservation of trees for example - with 60 percent support in Brazil and 57 percent in Indonesia – in places which are most affected by deforestation, whereas there was broader support for renewable energy (i.e., 76 percent in Australia, 65 percent in the US) in places known for higher fossil fuel production.

Action

The UK now has an opportunity to pioneer fair and sustainable food systems and address the 14.5 percent of global emissions which come from animal agriculture.

It’s therefore impressive to note that 32 percent of those surveyed in the UK by The Vegan Society support plans and policies which actively encourage people to cut back on their meat, dairy and egg consumption in order to help the government successfully achieve its climate objectives.

This is a great reflection of the rise of the vegan movement here, as well as the willingness to change behaviour. In 2020, 41 percent of Brits were reported as having completely removed or were actively reducing the amount of meat in their diet – a significant rise in comparison to the 33.5 percent figure found by a separate study in 2018.

It’s important to remind ourselves that every little action counts. Research from the University of Oxford shows that switching to plant-based diets globally could reduce agricultural land-use by 76 percent and cut food’s greenhouse gas emissions in half.

The academic who worked on the research concluded that eating a plant-based diet could therefore be the single biggest way to reduce an individual’s environmental impact on the planet.

Transition

Further work needs to be done to ensure that food system transformation is high on the climate agenda however, particularly on a political platform.

Of the 2,000 respondents who said they supported this approach, 61 percent said they’d back public awareness campaigns on the health and environmental benefits, and 60 percent believe there should be at least one plant-based, healthy meal on every public sector menu  - policies which The Vegan Society has been directly advocating for years through the Catering for Everyone campaign.

These policies work in tandem with other asks which received support as part of the Grow Green campaign, which support more climate-friendly farming techniques, including financial incentives for UK grown, high protein crops, such as beans, nuts and seeds (55 percent) as well as a package of support to enable farmers to transition out of animal farming (53 percent).

Systemic change doesn’t just result from individual action – it requires government intervention to encourage a societal shift to more sustainable consumption behaviours, interlocking with other important areas, such as conserving forests and land and investing in green jobs.

It’s imperative that our policies reflect the urgency of the problem we’re facing, and work to support this transition.

This Author

Sabrina Ahmed works with the campaigns and policy team at The Vegan Society and leads on rights-based campaigns, including the Catering for Everyone campaign, which seeks to legislate for at least one plant-based option on every public sector menu. Sabrina is a philosophy, politics and economics graduate and has worked in social policy prior to her existing role.

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