Shifting global food consumption to a primarily plant-based diet is one of the top ways of halting and reversing climate change, according to Project Drawdown. ADOBE STOCK IMAGE

OUR PLANETARY HEALTH: A plant-rich diet is good for people, and the planet

The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated individual action, such as staying home and washing hands, in order to reduce harm to the greater community during a time of crisis.

The majority of citizens have risen to this challenge with benevolence and resolve. It is widely accepted that we are facing a climate crisis and we must urgently mobilize efforts aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

One of the most impactful ways we can take individual action is by reflecting on our current food consumption and consider adopting a plant-rich or flexitarian diet.

Food is personal, it is cultural and it has become a socially charged issue. The impacts related to our current food system are distressing and multifaceted. Globally, there is inequity of access to nutrient-rich foods required for adequate health. For example, lower-income countries are overburdened with childhood malnutrition due to protein deficiency. Meanwhile, countries such as Canada and the United States see average protein consumption rates estimated at two times the recommended amount of 12-20 per cent of daily caloric intake. Global meat production is five times higher than it was 60 years ago, and we can most certainly expect a higher demand on agriculture as the planet’s human population continues to grow.

There are sustainable, indigenous practices for acquiring protein sustenance and innovative solutions for regenerative farming, however, the environmental changes due to industrialized livestock production are catastrophic and far reaching. In addition to deforestation, land degradation, water pollution and soil depletion, the livestock industry is responsible for almost 15 per cent of all human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions. The amount of land required for maintaining our existing livestock production is staggering. One-third of the entire planet’s arable land is needed solely for growing animal feed. It is simply unsustainable and inefficient when it requires 20 times the amount of land to produce a calorie of beef than it does to produce a calorie of beans.

Scientists and policymakers from around the world have identified and quantified the most effective solutions for halting and reversing climate change in Project Drawdown www.drawdown.org

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Shifting global food consumption to a primarily plant-based diet ranks at number three. Reducing animal protein consumption is not only an act of climate justice, it can significantly improve health outcomes for individuals and communities. It is commonly accepted that a plant-rich diet is linked to a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, strokes, cancer rates, and decreased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

The Government of Canada acknowledged the need to bring guidelines in line with science and in 2018, an updated version of the Canadian Food Guide was released, recommending individuals adopt a predominantly plant-centred diet.

The spectrum between a diet of animal protein with every meal and veganism is vast. There is room for moderate meat consumption if that is what is accessible for individuals. There are dietary needs that can only be met with animal protein due to cost and availability. There are cultural practices and familial connections associated with protein sustenance that are important traditions to honour. Where possible, we should ask ourselves if there is room to decrease meat consumption and reimagine some of our culinary delights.

We must insist on fair and equitable access to plant proteins and nutrient-dense foods for all citizens.

Albert Einstein became a vegetarian in his later years and stated: “Nothing will benefit health and increase the chance for survival of life on Earth as the evolution of a vegetarian diet.”

Now is the time to acknowledge that our individual actions do impact our planetary health and we can take action to reduce harm. If we cannot reduce meat consumption for our own personal health, perhaps we can embrace plant proteins for the health of our planet, our communities and future generations.

Megan Tomlinson, R.N. is a member of the Comox Valley Nurses for Health and the Environment

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