Why We Need to Transform Our Food System as a Globally Responsible Wales

Claudia Allen and Siôn Sleep argue that Wales can lead the shift to sustainable agriculture while recognising its proud heritage.

Renowned for its Glamorgan sausages, Conwy mussels, welsh cakes and bara brith; Wales is proud of the food it produces, and the dishes associated with its rich heritage.

It’s not to say that the relationship between the Welsh countryside and the food on our plates should ever change, but at a time where we are aware of the environmental impacts of our food systems, perhaps it is time we changed our approach to agriculture. 

A system change towards food sustainability is daunting. So, why should Wales be at the forefront of that? Well, the answer is because we have shown time and time again that Wales is capable of leading the next generation towards a more sustainable and prosperous future.

The creation of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act (2015) is a prime example of that. To ensure our communities are resilient to future challenges caused by animal agriculture, we founded the Eat Green Cardiff campaign.

Here, the goal was to open the door to plant-based eating in a non-daunting way, planting the seed for an individual to reduce their food-related emissions in the future.

Boring, inaccessible and of course, missing that vital source of protein. Many people believe that a plant-based diet is expensive, bland and lacks key nutrients, but this is simply untrue; just like any diet, it’s all about having the correct tools and knowledge to understand how to overcome these challenges.

We’ve achieved this by creating a free recipe book in collaboration with some of Cardiff’s best plant-based chefs and launched Eat Green Week: a week of plant-based eating with the recipe book acting as a helping hand, whilst showcasing our local businesses.

Ethics

A large amount of the plant-based community have decided to omit meat and dairy from their diet because of the ethics behind the killing of animals. This is a strong argument that has played a huge role in the plant-based movement, but it can be polarising; it can feed into a “us against the rest” mentality – either you care about the wellbeing of animals or you don’t.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. We’re sure most people would declare that they care about animals. Many people who follow a plant-based diet would challenge that with, “Then, why do you eat them?”.

The truth is that we are born into a society that is socially conditioned to see eating meat as a morally acceptable practice. Morality is merely a consensus which determines what is deemed acceptable. Morality changes over time.

“We need to act like A Globally Responsible Wales and play our part in mitigating the problem of climate change.”

In decades to come will we look back in disbelief and bewilderment at the fact that the exploitation of animals for food was acceptable? Who knows, but what we do know is that animal agriculture is a major contributor to the climate crisis and other environmental issues, which is something that needs to change.

Our Carbon Footprint

A recent study by Ivanova, et al. (2020) found that adopting a plant-based diet was one of the best things an individual can do to reduce their carbon footprint.

Whilst our food system appears more sustainable in comparison to the rest of the world due to our high agricultural standards, it is still causing a drastic impact on the environment worldwide. For instance, here in Wales, animal agriculture accounts for around 6.5% of our total carbon emissions (Welsh Government, 2019).

Despite the impact of animal agriculture appearing small, this is a global issue, and we need to act like A Globally Responsible Wales and play our part in mitigating the problem of climate change that we have helped to create. 

An increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide will reduce agricultural productivity and the nutritional quality of cereal and legume crops worldwide. The content of protein, iron and zinc will decrease by 19.5%, 14.4%, and 14.6% respectively by 2050 (Beach et al., 2019).

Clearly, farmers deserve to be supported and have already faced large subsidy cuts, but perhaps this money could be used differently to ensure financial stability?”

These are key nutrients for development and a decrease in their availability combined with food shortages will increase the number of chronic dietary deficiencies, leading to health issues such as reduced cognitive development and stunting (Groce et al., 2014).

It is often the case that by importing plant-based food options, fewer carbon emissions are created in comparison to consuming locally produced meat and dairy (Ritchie, 2020) and therefore is more sustainable for global food security. 

Figure 1 highlights that it is much more fruitful to concentrate on what we eat as opposed to where it comes from when it comes to tackling diet-based emissions.

Figure 1

Sustainability

From a humanitarian perspective, farmers all around the world have succumbed to the devastating effects of climate change. Rising temperatures, sea level and increased extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding have forced farmers all around the globe to reconsider their livelihood.

Climate change is disproportionately affecting small-scale farmers in less developed countries (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2018). Unfortunately, this is a case of those that are already living in poverty being the hardest hit when faced with the full force of climate change and being left with nothing due to land practices not being self-sustainable nor resilient to such an unprecedented event.

“The land could potentially be used for other environmentally friendly practices such rewilding, providing opportunities for farmers to become land managers and biodiversity to thrive.”

Can we seriously justify maintaining an unsustainable agricultural system in this country when it is causing such a detrimental impact on those whose livelihood depends on agriculture in other parts of the world? 

Although a change in consumption away from animal-based products initially appears to bring many challenges to UK farmers, it also presents many opportunities.

Even in today’s climate, farms are being subsidised by the government to support them due to a decrease in demand and high costs of veterinary bills. Clearly, farmers deserve to be supported and have already faced large subsidy cuts, but perhaps this money could be used differently to ensure financial stability?

Whenever an argument against supporting farmers to transition away from animal farming arises with a “who’s going to pay for that” attitude, they should in-fact consider the numerous possibilities that just haven’t been tried yet.

This subsidy could be used to support farmers looking to transition to more arable or plant-based systems ensuring more local, seasonal, healthy and less land-intensive (see Figure 2) food options are available and at a cheaper cost.

Or that the money is invested in educating local communities on how to live healthily by following a sustainable diet. Of course, if the land does not allow this without vast alterations to soil quality, then the land could potentially be used for other environmentally friendly practices such rewilding, providing opportunities for farmers to become land managers and biodiversity to thrive.

Figure 2

Doing Something

Climate resilience, human health and species diversity will all improve by progressing towards a plant-based food system. Omitting meat and dairy are one of the easiest things an individual can do to drastically reduce their environmental impact.

Through the creation of the recipe book and by promoting inspiring food ideas on social media, the Eat Green Week Campaign has shown that going plant-based doesn’t mean your diet is restrictive, instead, it opens up a whole new world of ideas, foods and flavours to try, whilst being kind to the planet.

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Helpwch ni i gryfhau sffêr gyhoeddus Cymru.

The campaign doesn’t subscribe to the narrative that you have to be 100% plant-based or nothing at all, instead, we understand that it’s a gradual process; doing something is always better than doing nothing!

The environmental approach to diet change allows an individual to take steps in the right direction by systematically replacing unsustainable parts of their diet with environmentally friendly alternatives.

Whether you are aiming for a fully plant-based diet or not, the most important thing is that everyone is making more of a conscious effort to live sustainably. To paraphrase the Zero Waste Chef Anne Marie Bonneau, “We don’t need a handful of people following a plant-based diet perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Sources

Beach, R. H., Sulser, T. B., Crimmins, A., Cenacchi, N., Cole, J., Fukagawa, N. K., … Ziska, L. H. (2019). Combining the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide on protein, iron, and zinc availability and projected climate change on global diets: a modelling study. The Lancet Planetary Health, 3(7), e307–e317. doi:10.1016/s2542-5196(19)30094-4 

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2018. The State Of Agricultural Commodity Markets, s.l.: Food And Agriculture Organization.

N Groce, E Challenger, R Berman-Bieler, A Farkas, N Yilmaz, W Schultink, D Clark, C Kaplan, M Kerac

Paediatr Int Child Health. 2014 Apr; 34(4): 308–314. doi: 10.1179/2046905514Y.0000000156

Ivanova, D. et al., 2020. Quantifying the potential for climate change mitigation of consumption options. Environmental Research Letters.

Ritchie, H., 2020. Environmental impacts of food production. Our World in Data. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food.

Samuel, M. S. et al., 2014. Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition. Nature, Volume 510, p. 139–142.

Welsh Government, 2019. Prosperity for All: A Low Carbon Wales, Welsh Government.

 

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Claudia Allen and Siôn Sleep are graduates of UpRisings Environmental Leadership Course and founders of Eat Green Cardiff.

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