Yes, What You Eat Matters, And Will Continue to Matter

In the past five decades, virtually all countries that have experienced rapid economic growth have also experienced a change in their local diets.

This has been a result of urbanization and rising incomes. What usually happens is that people:

(1) Move towards a diet composed of processed foods, refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats

(2) Demand more and more meat (India is the sole exception at the global level on this)

(3) Throw away more food, meaning they buy more food than they need.

In other words, we get busy. We don’t find the time to cook. We don’t have time to maintain our social relations and eat together. We start eating more fast food and more on-the-go food. We start prioritizing our spending on other things, such as electronics. At the same time we complain more and more about the price of food.

In this world of ours, prosperity comes in the form of a nice steak. Then again paradoxically everybody in the rich world can afford meat around the clock. It is no longer a luxury product, it is a 2 dollar cheeseburger.

In Ethiopia I am witnessing a change in the local diet as we speak.

The city of Bahir Dar is urbanizing quickly. Young Ethiopian people in cities no longer feel as keen to commit themselves to the traditional, religious tsom (fasting) days which have naturally restricted the amount of meat eaten. Fast food is becoming more and more popular. French fries are sometimes preferred over anything else, even injera, which has for centuries been the center of the Ethiopian diet.

This changing of traditional, local diets towards a more uniform, unhealthy global diet is a worrisome trend.

According to a meta analysis published in Nature, should this trend continue, in the future two thirds of the global disease burden will consist of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and some cancers.

Furthermore, if we continue on this track, our diets will put an increasing burden on clearing more tropical forests, savannas and grass lands. This means extinction for more and more species.

Additionally, we know that plant-based foods relative to animal-based foods have lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Here’s a stunning example: Measured per gram of protein, the GHG emissions of legumes are 250 lower than those of beef.

And the global food security scoop comes here:

We often read gloomy news about population growth, especially in poor nations, and how sustaining food security for these people will be an environmental impossibility.

But whose food security are we really talking about?

In 2009 alone, the worlds’ 15 richest nations had a per capita demand for meat protein 750 % greater than the 24 poorest nations.

It is the western diet that puts the most pressure on the environment.

If the average global diet becomes that of the rich country diet, per capita GHG emissions from crop and livestock will increase by 32 % by 2050. This would be a huge, 80 % increase in global GHG emissions from food production.

However, there are some good news.

If we change our diets, we can dramatically reduce per capita GHG emissions.

In a mediterranean diet (less meat, more vegetables, fruits, fish and grains) the reduction would be 30 %, in vegetarian diets 55 %. Those are big numbers.

However, if not planned carefully, an environmentally healthy diet is not always good for one’s health.

The solution according to the article published in Nature is to seek healthier diets that have low GHG emissions instead of going blindly for diets that fully minimize GHG emissions.

You can start by eating less meat. And when you do eat it, eat pasture raised, quality beef.

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