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Our diets have changed considerably in the past 50 years. Demand for meat and processed foods has increased enormously whilst at the same time wasting far more food all along the food chain. It is calculated that worldwide, about a third of the food we produce for human consumption is never eaten – in Malta, 25% of foodstuffs purchased finish up being wasted and thrown away. Rising incomes, increased food marketing and poor food handling are all contributing to unhealthy food habits. The way we use food is leading to a polarised health crisis: globally, levels of obesity are rising rapidly even while 850 million people suffer malnutrition from food shortages. Agriculture for meat production is the biggest user of land and fresh water worldwide. It makes significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution, and changes land use. This has severe consequences for public health, the environment, the availability of vital resources such as water, and the security of the world’s food supply. The food industry must change, and political and public action is needed to make it happen. A lack of political leadership so far means that the food industry is generally unwilling to engage in discussions or take action on sustainable diets. It also means that the public are not given enough guidance on what to eat.
It comes as no surprise that according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date, avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet. The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.
We produce perfectly edible food and feed it to animals who cannot convert it into the same quantity of protein or carbohydrate – so it is wasteful, ecologically. The dairy industry is also part of the problem and on an industrial scale we have animals that never go outside and eat a blade of green grass. They are like organic robots living in a horrible environment with no behavioural or social enrichment. This does not mean that there is no good organic dairy farming, and we should celebrate those people. Sustainable eating is also great for the wealth of those who grow and eat food around the world. One has to keep in mind that despite the increasing industrialisation of food production, about 80 per cent of the world’s population is still fed by small scale farmers or through family farms, who often use less environmentally damaging techniques and generate more money within the local economy. By supporting Maltese farmers, you’re ensuring that they, and the communities they live in, have the money they need to live. Our farmers are extremely important when it comes to looking after the environment. Considering that 70 per cent of the world’s land surface is farmed, we need them to farm it in a sustainable way. So it is vital that we, as individuals and also our government and European institutions, support people in the meat and dairy business through a process of change – we have to work together to produce a healthy world. After all, we cannot ignore the people who have been feeding us for many generations. It is a reason to celebrate that many young people are now turning to veganism – It is per se a positive change and partially a response to a broken food system.
What we need to see more of though is a pragmatic approach rather than the ‘us against them’ antagonistic approach. This needs to be a process of understanding and supporting each other towards achieving the next stage. If you are a meat eater, consider going meat free at least one or two days every week. When you do eat meat or dairy, eat better. Don’t settle for slimy sausages or unidentified chicken mush in your nuggets. When you do buy meat, look for pasture-fed, free range or organic options so you can be sure your dinner hasn’t been intensively reared. If your idea of vegetarian cuisine is just a mountain of lettuce then take a look at our delicious vegetarian recipes – all with seasonal and local fruits and vegetables. If you are already vegetarian, how about halving your dairy consumption? Dairy alternatives can be easily found in order to make up for the difference. If you’re not completely vegan, don’t be, or don’t let anyone discourage you – including vegans. People should be encouraged towards moving in the right direction.
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