Our industry is uniquely placed to shape the change in eating habits that can have a lasting effect on the future of the planet itself. Clara Ming Pi explains the connections from plate to planet
Scientists believe that change in the global climate over the past 200 years was mostly due to increased emission of greenhouse gases, caused by human activities. When the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) is too high to be absorbed by nature, the temperature of the earth rises. The emission of carbon dioxide is now three times higher than the absorption rate.
The level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is also at its highest point for 80m years and growing at a rate of 2.5% annually. Global warming leads to the melting of glaciers and a rise in sea water levels – drastic climate change can cause extreme weather, such as storms, floods and drought.
A gathering of such trends threatens to send our civilisation into economic and political chaos. We are now at a critical point in time. Scientists estimate that we may only have 10 years to prevent catastrophic climate change. UN experts issued a report in 2007 and warned that if we do not take immediate action, rising global temperatures may cause even more catastrophic weather changes, leading to severe droughts, famine and extinction of species.
But what does this have to do with the food we eat? Climate change-induced crop yield reduction, conversion of grains to bio-diesel and increasing use of grains for feeding livestock have all led to the current global challenges of food shortages and escalating food prices. Our insatiable appetite for meat is met by intensive feed production, which in turn causes deforestation, over-ploughing, erosion of topsoil and the bleeding dry of our aquifers. Furthermore, the heavy use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is polluting our environment and impacting on food safety and our health.
World population reached 7bn in 2012, with an estimated 1.5bn people suffering from malnutrition and hunger. Developing nations are increasing their grain-intensive meat consumption; this has not only resulted in rising obesity and chronic health issues in these countries, it has also escalated genetically-modified crop production for livestock feeds. This pushes increasing demand for irrigation, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, leading towards unsustainable agriculture and ultimately the destruction of our planet. Our environmental footprint has now exceeded earth’s bio-capacity. But can we reduce our burden on our planet, reduce carbon emission and mitigate climate change by our food choices?
All of our food sources are the cause of one third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Changing your diet is more planet-friendly than driving a hybrid or switching from incandescent light bulbs to fluorescent ones. Industrial beef production is the worst culprit causing GHG emissions. Cattle produce methane gas, which has 30 times more effect on global warming than carbon dioxide.
Farming cattle leads to deforestation and habitat destruction. Livestock is one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems according to a UN report in 2006. Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the world’s surface land area. We are facing global food shortages but one third of our harvest and over 90% of the soybean crop is used to feed livestock.
Current world meat consumption is set to double by 2050. In China, increased meat consumption has come alongside rapid economic development – so much so that more meat is eaten in China than in the US. Increased affluence seems to mean eating more hamburgers or fried chicken at fast food mega-chains.
This is a worldwide trend, and we can only change the direction in which we’re heading if we become aware of the environmental consequences of our food choices. The latest scientific studies point to the health advantages of eating less meat, such as reduced risk of, and prevention of, obesity, Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and various types of cancer. Health professionals are now advocating a healthier, plant-based diet.
Since the social and economic reform started in China over 30 years ago, the number of Chinese classified as obese has reached 325m. It is estimated this figure will double in the next 20 years. Type II diabetes is now a serious concern in China, especially when the rate of occurrence in children is climbing by 10% a year. Hong Kong faces similar health issues. There, annual per capita meat consumption has far exceeded the rest of the world since 2008. Over the past five years, while the US, Canada, the European Union nations and other developed countries are advocating healthy trends and reducing meat intakes, meat consumption in Hong Kong and China has grown.
On 8 September 2008, UN intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) chair Dr Rajendra K Pachauri presented a report in London entitled Global Warning – Impact of Meat Production and Consumption on Climate Change. He recommended we go without meat one day a week, then gradually reduce our meat intake. Pachauri said: “In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it is the most attractive opportunity.”
In April 2010, I instigated the first Meatless Monday at a Hong Kong acute hospital with 1,800 beds. Vegan meals were served three times a day to all inpatients. Money saved by not buying meat was used to purchase organic vegetables and whole grains for patients. This programme drew a positive response from patients and achieved a reduction of carbon emission by 40,000kg annually. In 2012, the Meatless Monday programme is a worldwide trend; in Hong Kong, Green Monday is spreading across the territory. The implementation of the initiative in 106 school lunch programmes, covering more than 80,000 students, is a major step forward, especially for Hong Kong, which now has the highest per capita meat consumption in the world.
In 2009, the international Health 20 Care Without Harm 10 (HCWH) coalition recommended the implementation of balanced menus in hospitals worldwide. It is a systematic approach to reduce the amount of meat served on patient menus by 20%, and is a strategic pathway to serving the healthiest, most sustainably-produced foods available. It offers cost savings as well as concrete public and environmental health benefits.
Industrial meat and poultry production relies on the addition of antibiotics, arsenic and hormones, and contributes to crowded conditions that pollute air and water. Antibiotic resistance, air and water pollution and the associated impact on the health of communities are ultimately borne by healthcare systems. In 2011, implementing the balanced menus initiative at one Hong Kong hospital led to a total annual reduction of 27% in meat purchases and 127,600kg in carbon emissions, plus a cost saving of HKD641,400. All this helps to achieve better health and environmental outcomes in our society.
Scientists predict that if we continue with our current rate of meat consumption, our farmland and water resources will not be able to support our appetite. The effect of our current state of water scarcity on food production means radical steps will be needed to feed a global population expected to reach 9bn by 2050. Leading water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying that the world’s population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.
Albert Einstein once said: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” Green revolution can begin on our own dining table. Foodservice professionals should embrace the challenge to provide our customers with healthy and tasty plant-based menus. In doing so, we can play a major part in saving our Earth’s resources, mitigating climate change and sustaining the health of our people and our planet.
Clara Ming Pi obtained her BSc and MSc in Canada and is a member of Dieticians Canada. She pioneered the first foodservice computer system and cook-chill centre in Canada and Asia. After joining FCSI in 1998, she was instrumental in the growth of Asia Pacific from chapter to division.
She is FCSI Asia Pacific Division chair, FCSI World Wide Board Director, and is an adjunct associate professor at HKU SPACE. Clara spearheaded the Meatless Monday programme and implemented the balanced menu approach in Hong Kong.