COP26: Plant-based is not the answer to climate change

Posted: 1 November 2021 | | 22 comments

As COP26 kicks off, Prof Chris Elliott discusses the future of food and why he believes the answer does not lie in plant- or cell-based foods.

Chris' CornerAs you read this, COP26 will be well underway. Approximately 25,000 have gathered from more than 200 countries in Scotland, Glasgow to discuss, debate, and, hopefully, agree a way forward in tackling climate change.

I had not planned to be there, but an unexpected invitation came my way from The New York Times to be a panel member in their Climate Hub session, ‘The Meat of the Matter’. We had a bit of a dress rehearsal recently and this was a rather feisty affair, to say the least, and I expect the session itself will be a lot more so.

Animal based food products, especially milk and meat, have come under a huge amount of scrutiny and, indeed, attack in recent years. And, in the lead up to COP26, this debate has only intensified. For some individuals like myself, who have been trying to bring more logic and reason to the debate, we are being vilified as being the route cause of all things bad about our food system and planet. The reason for this is not so clear cut as one may think. Some are driven by their desire to save the planet (I’d say as an inhabitant of the same planet, my desire is no less), while others are driven by the potential profits of plant- and cell-based trends. I have no huge objection to this, as long as the food they produce is actually sustainable and provides the same level of nutrition as their livestock-based equivalents. So far, based on the information that is available – which is not readily accessible – I am far from convinced this is the case.

What we cannot work towards is a healthy planet at the cost of providing even unhealthier food to global citizens. Taking stock of where we are is always a good starting point; currently there are close to one billion suffering from malnutrition on our planet due to lack of calories, this is despite us producing more than enough food to feed everyone. Did you know, our global food waste accounts for 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions? We have around two billion citizens on the planet suffering from malnutrition due to consuming too many empty calories, the majority of which come from plant-based, hyper-processed foods. And we have a further one billion on the planet who suffer from hidden hunger, ie, a lack of vital micronutrients in their diet; many of which are only available in sufficient quantities through the consumption of foods from animal origin.

Addressing these huge challenges, whilst also delivering a sustainable food system should be the common goal for us all. I am a firm believer in taking a flexitarian approach to eating, I am also of the belief that science and technology can play a huge and positive role in the delivery of a food system that will not only achieve net zero but will actually become climate positive.

The drive towards regenerative agriculture, getting away from monocropping and back to balance with nature, is achievable. Common sense and a holistic approach to delivering a healthy planet and a healthy food system has to prevail. Meanwhile I must get myself prepared to discuss why plant-based, stringy, fake cheese with all the nutrition of a cardboard box is probably not how we deliver on this.

22 responses to “COP26: Plant-based is not the answer to climate change”

  1. Steve says:

    How does everyone think human beings evolved? We ate hunted, discovered fire and ate meat. This gave us strength, speed and large brains. Only when we started farming cereal did our brains start to shrink. Cereal and most vegetables are carbohydrates and, as very food scientist knows, turn to sugar causing many metabolic diseases. And yes, crop growing also kills animals by reducing their habitats and destroying them with harvesters. If anyone is interested in the statistics and nutrition, please refer to the excellent and detailed work by Zoe Harcombe.

  2. Selma says:

    Anti-biotics given to animals to keep them healthy in over-crowded factory farms, is being ingested by you every time you eat meat. This is leading to antibiotic resistance, which will put us back a century in terms of healthcare.
    You may also say: what I eat is my personal business, but the fact is that if your “choice” of meat, eggs and dairy is directly affecting our water, soil, air, all animals, starving nations and our future as humans on this planet, then, as the old adage goes: what you choose to eat is EVERYONE’s business

  3. Selma Richardson says:

    This article is misleading on so many levels, and untrue in many other respects. The whole food plant based diet has conclusively proved to reduce the incidence cancer, of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and many other inflammatory diseases in short periods of time. These are the facts. Only a fool will dispute the benefits of a Whole Foods plant based diet. Nobody is talking about junk foods. But since you brought it up, the meat-based junk food industry is still infinitely more harmful than the plant based junkfood industry. And you must have missed the peer-reviewed conclusive research on how processed meat cause cancer. Personally the WFPB diet/lifestyle cured my arthritis since I changed over from meat 5 years ago. I live in South Africa and meat is the order of the day. People eat meat because, well, people eat meat. We grew up with it. We love our dogs but we eat their equivalent in other sentient, gentle animals and hypocritically think nothing of it. We pay some poor individual to do the dirty work, the horrific butchering of innocent animals, for us. So we abuse both animals and the poor. We fear mental health if a child is cruel to animals, yet we dine on the flesh of a tortured animal three times every day, and call hunting a “sport”. Like the generations before us grew up with slavery, apartheid and the suppression of woman, we suppress, torture and enslave animals. But just because everyone is doing it, does not make it right. In time to come, our children and their children will look at us as barbarians. Is that the legacy you want to leave behind?

  4. Steve says:

    FTAO Debbie
    It is certainly true that animal waste can get into water courses, but are bio-degradable. Other contaminants include chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides which are probably much more dangerous as they do not break down and cause dead zones. Using food waste as a fertiliser is a great idea. About 80% of all food waste is of vegetable origin and is already used to feed animals so to use some as a fertiliser must be a good idea as food waste must be bio-degradable, too.

  5. Lisa says:

    FTAO Steve Rice

    Ruminants have been on this planet for a long time, indeed, however, we contributed to their demise, at least of those who were original, wild habitats of Earth.
    The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first ever comprehensive census of the distribution of the biomass, or weight of living creatures, across classification type and environment. It found that, while humans account for 0.01 percent of the planet’s biomass, our activity has reduced the biomass of wild marine and terrestrial mammals by six times and the biomass of plant matter by half.
    Humanity has caused the loss of 83 percent of all wild mammals since the dawn of civilization, the study claims.

  6. Lisa says:

    FTAO Debbie
    I would suggest you read about environmental implications of the use of manure as fertilizer on water quality and soil. The reason why we have ocean dead zones is agriculture.

    As for fertilizing the soil for food production, we can actually use food waste to create nutrient-rich compost. However, nobody is putting effort into doing this because they are incentivised to use animal waste. We have so much of it that we end up dumping it on the fields and claim that it is all good (but there is evidence it is not, if only you care enough to look at it).

  7. Debbie says:

    Unfortunately we would still need animals in the food chain in order for agriculture to be healthy and nutritious
    We need the manure from the rudiment animals to fertilise the soil so as to grow nutritious food for people to eat
    We cannot do this chemically

  8. Michael Potter says:

    I am disappointed that Chris Elliot is participating in the Glasgow talks, he will not make a contribution, just muddy the waters.

  9. Dr. I Chalmers says:

    A concerning lack of fact to back up the claims made in this article. The fact that widescale industrial farming is extremely damaging to the environment and the ecologies of this planet is indisputable. The claim that plant based foods do not contain the vitamins needed for a healthy, functioning body is disingenuous at best.

  10. Anders says:

    Not much fact in that article. I’m a keen meat eater, but I realize that I should be changing my diet, if not for anything else, then for the climate (the planet!).
    The author blames plant based for being insufficiently nutritious and less tasty (the stringy cheese) – sure, such exist, but making it a general rule is just like saying “my granny smoke cigarettes all her life, and she lived to be a hundred, so tobacco is not harmful”.

  11. Alistair S Thomson says:

    The article made some great points. In regards to micronutrients the Professor Im sure will be able to clarify that. If you take Magnesium for example if your deficient in Magnesium then your metabolism will not work correctly as there are 350 pathways that need this “Micronutrient ”

    If I remember from my FoodTech Course at Bristol Poly 35 years ago I think .. Nutrients ( whether they be Macro or Micro) ….ie Vitamins are essential for the diet.

    Another example would be lack of Vit D in the Winter as this is required for immune system.

    A lot nutrients can be lost in processing.
    They question is why can the Elites at Glasgow Eat meat and someone like myself have to eat insects ?

  12. Natalie Bowden says:

    As a Dietitian I have seen the explosion in highly processed plant based foods and wonder about the ir effect on the planet with transport and packaging across the supply chain.

    Living in South Africa, I work with an approach to encourage local wholefoods. Helping people to rediscover their cooking skills, consider energy needs of their appliances and consider the portions and frequency of animal products eaten.

    When you turn up to a braai on a regular weekend and there is an overflow of meat, this is not ok. But a well balanced braai as a special social occasion can work.

  13. Steve Rice says:

    Absolutely correct. There has been much mis-information put about by vested interests. Ruminants have been on this planet for 5 million years in vast numbers, long before industrial polution. Crop growing destroys habitats, uses vast amounts of water for irrigation and requires chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides and produces most waste. Finally, we are continually destroying precious topsoil and, without animals, we will never be able to fertilise organic crops or regenerate unproductive land.

  14. Kevin says:

    Difficult to achieve a reasonable argument and conclusion on the title of the article. Needless to say you haven’t. Would be interested in a video/transcript of the debate to see if there’s any further substance for the layperson.

  15. Growing up in Africa, I can honestly say that most of our diet was plant based ie beans, greens etc with animal based protein maybe twice a month. I was fit and healthy. Since coming to the land of plenty ie the west my diet changed to more animal protein and less veg. A steak here is made to look and sound more appealing than a head of broccoli. How my health has suffered because after all this “good” food! From ulcers to high cholesterol and rheumatoid arthritis. This is not what a healthy body with “correct nutrition” should look like. So just under two years ago I went plant based. No more ulcers, weight down to healthy weight and more immunosuppessant injections for the rheumatoid arthritis. I feel better now than I have in the last 15 years.
    Plant based is healthier for the body and for the planet. It takes less planet resources to grow broccoli than to grow a steal. Less methane less land.
    Educating the underprivileged of the world on healthier plant protein alternatives and giving them the help and tools they need to succeed is what is needed. Instead of feeding grain, soya etc to cattle we should cut out the middle man ie the cow and eat it ourselves.

  16. Jared Kent says:

    Right. And I’m not sure how we can write an entire article villfying plant based string cheese and pretend like chicken nuggets, corn dogs, and other meat animal based junk food doesn’t exist

  17. Ophelia says:

    This is insightful. Thank you.

  18. Tim says:

    Perhaps the author could clarify what, exactly comprises “, ie, a lack of vital micronutrients in their diet; many of which are only available in sufficient quantities through the consumption of foods from animal origin.”, as this would be a surprise to the millions of healthy vegans around the world.

  19. TY says:

    I wanted to point out that the shift towards a plant-based diet is not purely environmental. Many people adopt one for health purposes as well. But a major percentage of followers are vegans, people *ethically* opposed to the exploitation of animals. I myself am an ethical vegan, so clearly I am very supportive of a shift to plan-based. But I will attempt to separate my ethical veganism from environmentalism.

    Would you say that even “sustainable” animal agriculture can be as sustainable as plant agriculture? Even the lowest-CO2 emitting animals are still above plant-based foods and proteins. You mention fake cheese too, and I assume you’re thinking of junk food vegans. But whole-food plant-based diets avoid such “empty calories” — it’s fallacious to label all plant-based diets as processed and low-nutrient.

    And referring to nutrition, has the ADA not stated that a balanced vegan diet is “suitable for all stages of life”, and that it may even prevent certain diseases? While vegans are encouraged to take B12 supplements, is this much different from supplementing animals with B12, killing them and then consuming their flesh?

    There’s a great deal to unpack here, although I concede that I have no qualifications on this topic, I’m just a random vegan. But so many of these arguments I’ve encountered before, and I wonder how they’re still made so regularly. Yes, people are starving: we feed grain to animals, not people, so that developed countries can eat meat. I don’t believe that that undermines being PB.

    I have never understood the approach of “reducing meat”. If meat is harmful, which it is, then reducing is insufficient. I thought of vegans as radicals with unsustainable diets in the past as well. No, plant-based diets alone will not reverse climate change, but I fail to understand why an environmentalist should be opposed to denouncing the horror that is animal agriculture.

  20. Liza says:

    Nowhere in this discussion did I see aquaculture and farmed fish consumption; could you please comment on these in the context of climate change mitigation? There are cell-based fish proteins now being manufactured, but as you mentioned, the question is whether they are really more sustainable and whether they deliver the same nutrition as their counterparts.

  21. Karina González says:

    Couldn´t find any conclusion or explanation on the title inquiry. Didn´t understands if you are against plant based diet or jus plat based highly industrialized products.

  22. Ian says:

    I cannot count the number of articles I’ve read that argue against a whole food plant based diet because of people trying to survive in poverty stricken countries.
    How about those in the western world that are able to visit a supermarket go WFPB first, and then we ponder how to help the rest of the world?
    As for plant-based, stringy, fake cheese… nobody is kidding themselves that this is a superfood.

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