The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need for a transition to sustainable diets not only for environmental reasons but also for the health of humans.
From the coronavirus’s spread at a wet market in Wuhan in China to the cases of hundreds who have died across meat factories in the United States and the United Kingdom, we have learned all too well this year the exponential viral possibilities of our industrial meat industry.
The news came as a surprise to the world at large, but it shouldn’t have. The Spanish Flu at the turn of the century, the Asian Influenza in 1957, the Hong Kong flu in 1968, then SARS and the H5N1 Avian flu of the early 2000s, can all be linked back to the meat industry.
According to a new report by the United Nations Environmental Programme, 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in nature. The Avian flu (H5N1) spread from chicken farms in the early 2000s, killing hundreds of people across Asia and the Middle East with an astonishing death rate in Egypt, and a 66% death rate in Thailand.
Pandemics aside, high meat consumption is also a leading cause of rising non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Obesity is now a major health concern for close to half the population in countries like Ghana and Malaysia.
But a shift towards a more health-conscious living is gaining momentum among young people who are learning from our mistakes. Many of these young people grew up with the Internet.
They are always connected, and naturally see connections between their own health and some of the world’s biggest challenges. They have come to realize that a transformation in how we eat, is also critical to meeting the climate targets of the Paris Agreement. Currently, 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions are from the livestock sector.
According to new research by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, food production globally is so carbon-intensive that emissions from the food system could push us past the Paris Agreement’s goals even if every other sector stopped emitting tomorrow. Every year, food emissions keep growing, and if we don’t address it with sound policy and new farming approaches emissions from our food systems by the end of the 21st century could single-handedly tip the world’s temperature over a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
In last year’s State of the Planet address, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “food systems are one of the main reasons we are failing to stay within our planet’s ecological boundaries.”
Encouragingly, many young people can see these connections and are already calling things out. From organizing climate strikes to pressuring respective national government leaders to abide by the Paris agreement, young people are at the forefront of efforts to tackle climate change and the food sector.
Last year, a social media campaign under the #FoodForOurFuture connected young people from five different continents. Its aim was to call for a plant-based diet to be served at the notoriously carbon-intensive UN climate negotiations next year. The campaign successfully connected representatives from a large number of countries. Together, they produced a call to build a more sustainable menu at this year’s UN talks in 16 different languages.
While this alone will not shift global food systems, these young people know that UN climate negotiators must do better to both practically and symbolically address the urgency of the crisis we all face. UN climate negotiations are rightfully focused on issues that impact the globe, and their catering rarely gets more than an afterthought. But the representatives of FOODATCOP argue that these UN representatives know the impact that our food can have on the climate, and it’s time for them to quite simply “walk the talk.”
If UN negotiators are serious about the signals they want to send the world this year, they simply cannot overlook this simple, but powerful symbol of their commitment.
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