Global food plans must start from the bottom up

Last month, Norwegian think tank EAT and British medical journal The Lancet produced a joint document setting out their ideas for a new global diet. Written by 37 scientists from around the world and led by Harvard University with funding from the Wellcome Institute, the message was that we must drastically cut our meat consumption – especially red meat – in favour of a more plant-based diet. This, they say, is for both environmental and health reasons: livestock farming makes a disproportionate contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, causing climate change, and animal products, especially saturated fats, are bad for our health.

The reaction to it has been mixed (see this handy summary from the FRCN). Many groups campaigning for a better food system, such as Sustain, the Food and Climate Research Network and the Food Ethics Council, have been broadly supportive of it, though not without caveats. Others such as the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, NFU Cymru and the Sustainable Food Trust have been more critical, championing the role of red meat and questioning the environmental impacts of plant proteins and oils. But by the very fact of their responding, they have all implicitly accepted that a global approach to food is necessary.

What is particularly interesting though has been the reaction from groups and individuals who see nothing good in the report and don’t mind saying so. Many of them object to the dethroning of meat as the mainstay of a healthy diet, while others simply don’t like being told what to do. The comments on Twitter were revealing: ‘the most corrupt and disgusting attempt to control agriculture there has ever been’, said one; ‘the billionaire elitists can #EATLancet themselves. I’ll stick to eating real food,’ was another, while another denounced the ‘global elites who jet around the world telling us simpletons how we need to live and what we need to eat!!’

Some of the backlash to EAT-Lancet was decidedly uncivil, not to say unkind, and it is easy to dismiss it on those grounds. But such strength of feeling deserves a closer look, not just because it might help us understand why meat-eating is so entrenched, but also because it is part of a bigger question. How can the human race learn to act together on global challenges, whether it’s climate change, bioengineering or the rise of artificial intelligence?

Global action is something new for humanity, and it requires a new way of looking at the world. It means looking beyond our usual concerns for ourselves, our families and our nations, and feeling some kinship with people who are very different from us. And our concern has to extend beyond people to the animals, plants and microbes with whom we share the planet. We need to recognize our part in an interconnected world, and that means a change in the values that guide our lives, one that sees that our flourishing is intertwined with that of the greater whole.

The Common Cause Foundation describes this as a shift from values of self-enhancement to self-transcendence, or universalism, and it is working to place ‘values that prioritise community, environment and equality’ at the heart of public life. This is vital work, given a political climate which is much more about money, competitiveness and achievement, and it has many implications for education, businesses and government. It means seeing food less as a commodity and more as something that connects people with each other and the natural world.

However, as the Common Cause work acknowledges, humans cannot exist in a continuous state of planetary consciousness. We also have bodies to feed, livelihoods to earn, families to support and communities to belong to. We are members of nations too, and that gives us responsibilities, as we find out when elections and referendums come round. All of these engage different values in us, ones to do with survival, belonging and identity.

According to The World Values Survey, which tracks human values over time, whole countries can be classified according to the values which predominate in them. On their values map they identify an axis along which we move from concerns about survival to self-expression, by which they mean openness, trust, tolerance and participation – the basis for a global world view.

Distribution of values in different countries in 2010-2014, from the World Values Survey (http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSContents.jsp) 

While Protestant Europe and the English-speaking world score high for self-expression and so presumably global awareness, large swathes of the world’s population including Russia, eastern Europe, Africa and the Islamic world are all more focused on their own survival. There is of course variation within countries, too. This may show up as arguments over the balance between national interests and globalism – an aspect of the Brexit debate – or as polarized arguments about food.

This raises an important question: how can the values of universalism be reconciled with those of nationalism and localism? This is a particular challenge to those who, like the authors of the EAT-Lancet report, propose global campaigns for change. How universal can they be, if a large proportion of the world’s population rejects the very idea of nations working together, or assigns it low importance? Does this not leave would-be global legislators either as totalitarian overlords, or as merely another food tribe, albeit one with loftier aspirations than most?

What is needed is a way of reconciling two necessities: global cooperation to tackle global challenges, and smaller groupings, whether that be nations or sectors or other alliances, in order to provide the sense of meaningful belonging which is so vital to us all. Both sets of values must be honoured, and brought into relationship with each other. And surely the onus is on the global legislators to accommodate the subgroups of the food system, since they are the ones who claim to have the overview which serves everyone’s interests.

That means showing more humility than the EAT-Lancet Commission has so far displayed. Leaders need to earn the trust of those who they hope will follow them, or else they become dictators – a charge that the law-takers of this new global word order have been only too quick to make. Anyone who wants to create a new paradigm for food must listen more and decree less; grandiose references to the ‘Great Food Transformation’ or ‘a food system reboot for the Anthropocene’ are not the way to reach out to sceptics.

But more fundamentally, there will almost certainly be important lessons to learn from the EAT-Lancet refuseniks. There is more than one narrative here. Just because we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, it doesn’t follow that basing our diets on carbon footprint calculations will allow us to move in a straight line down the graph to salvation. Maybe we need to build more human cohesion first; maybe things will have to get worse before they can get better. And the story will play out in the practical details of what is actually happening on (and below) the ground.

Food is part of a large interlocking system of transport, jobs, settlement patterns, soils, water and lifestyles, and that is hard to fix it at a merely technical level. It needs another approach, based on understanding how food connects people and studying the role it plays in different societies. Why exactly do people eat the diets they do, often in the face of evidence that they are unhealthy for people and planet? Given the recommendations of the report, we need especially to ask what we can learn from our long tradition of beef and sheep farming in the UK.

Humans belong in social groups, and connection with others is fundamental to our well-being. Some people like to pioneer change, while others prefer to maintain the status quo, and we need both types with their special gifts (and of course most of us are a bit of both). In a world where innovation is glorified, we need to remind ourselves of the importance of tradition as well, not so much in the spirit of striking a balance as of recognizing that we can’t have one without the other.

EAT-Lancet has crystallized a set of pioneering views that is well worth listening to. But their global overview must connect with the concerns of the grassroots. They open the door to that when they note the need to ‘match food production with land capability’, accepting for instance that some land is best kept under grass for the sake of soil structure and biodiversity. This is why Beef + Lamb New Zealand, somewhat surprisingly, welcomed the report as an opportunity. Let us build on that and take the enquiry a stage deeper.

Edited on 13.4.2019 to add illustration.

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