- Now, stop me if you've heard this before.
Eating vegetables is good for you, and wait for it...
Growing vegetables for eating produces relatively low carbon dioxide emissions.
No, you've maybe heard that before?
Okay, so what are we supposed to do for the rest of the video then?
(upbeat music) Hey, I'm Miriam.
I really care about eating.
I also really care about the climate, but it turns out figuring out how the food that we eat impacts the climate is super difficult, because making and growing all this food is related to basically everything.
So I called up Sheril Kirshenbaum who works with Michigan State University to help explain all of this to me.
- I've observed that although we often address challenges related to climate, food, water, energy, conservation, and policy separately, they are in reality, different frames around the same story.
More people, limited resources, and a changing planet.
I began my career in marine biology working on sea cucumbers.
I was looking at how they moved, and how they grew.
Then I moved to work on Capitol Hill, and I saw that it wasn't usually the scientists, or the experts, who were working on the policy issues related to oceans, and climate, and environment, and energy.
And it became clear that more of us need to be not just working on our pretty disparate, specific research areas, but combining what we do to tell a bigger story.
And I've learned that tackling these global challenges takes more than data.
It requires understanding social norms, different perspectives, and human behavior.
And that's part of why I ended up in agriculture, because nowhere is this more relevant than in navigating our global food system.
- [Miriam] We've got a lot of data backing up the sense that veggies, fruits, legumes, and nuts are really good for us, and better for the climate than diets high in meat and sugar, which aren't so good for us.
- Producing red meat alone has been estimated as responsible for up to 30% of ag greenhouse gas emissions because of all the land, water, and energy involved.
And that means the agricultural sector is the world's second largest emissions producer after energy.
The World Resources Institute tells us that if you look specifically at impact per gram of protein, beef production takes 20 times the land, and creates 20 times the emissions as bean production.
But we also know the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt because there's a lot of controversy over the exact math involved.
- According to the report called "Food in the Anthropocene," which just as well could have been called "Everything Wrong With Today's Global Food System," not as catchy a title, I'll admit.
Anyway, in this report 37 experts in nutrition, agriculture, economics, health, and government from 16 countries, describe a universal healthy reference diet.
They say that if everyone ate that diet, we'd avoid between 10.8 and 11.6 million deaths per year.
A reduction of 19 to 23.6%.
Their paper also says that we need to transform what we eat, and how me make what we eat in order to achieve the U.N.'s sustainable development goals in the Paris Climate Agreement.
- Numbers aside, what's clear is that a global transformation of the food system is really needed to feed 10 billion people over the coming decades.
But it's not that simple.
The authors of the report are asking for big changes.
They want us to eat less that half an ounce of red meat per day, or about 3.5 ounces, a single serving of red meat, every week, and that's a lot less than many people in U.S. currently consume.
On average we eat two to three ounces of red meat every day.
In fact, the U.S. is among the highest per capita consumers of meat on the planet, eating about 71 pounds of beef, pork, and lamb every single year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- So ignoring that this "Food in the Anthropocene" paper is 38 pages long, and there are entire journals about examining how our global food system does and should work, eating more veggies and less meat seems pretty straightforward, right?
It shouldn't be that hard, but to get the whole world eating the diet recommended by this paper probably won't happen.
Because as is, our global food system, in many ways, forces us into making choices that are bad for our health and the planet's because it's so freaking immensely complicated.
Thanks to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, or as I like to think of it, a bunch of scientists chillin' at the U.N., we learned just how complicated our food system is.
- [Sheril] The IPCC reports that human use directly effects more than 70% of global ice-free land surface.
That's most of the land on the planet.
Consider between a quarter and a third of all primary production goes to food.
And a quarter to a third of all the food that's produced is wasted.
And by the way, in the U.S., we waste up to half of the food that we grow.
It estimates that the value of global ecosystem services, that's when we place a monetary value on all the things that ecosystems provide us, is equivalent to global GDP.
And agriculture accounts for 70% of global fresh water use at a time when we're extremely concerned about water scarcity.
- All that land we're using is changing fast due to human activity, and that includes food production.
Between 1850 and 2015, average land surface air temperature has increased by 1.53 degrees Celsius, at nearly twice the rate oceans are warming.
The IPCC report is clear, climate change has already impacted food security, and contributed to decertification, and land degradation.
Calling this whole thing a really big problem is probably an understatement.
And because the global food system is so complex, and we're messing it up in so many ways, for this video we're just gonna look at two small pieces of his very big puzzle to understand why it's so hard to make ourselves and the planet healthier.
So here's puzzle piece one.
We've been trying to make this video for well over a year.
My laptop is littered with the digital equivalent of balled up pieces of paper, covered in the frustrated scribblings of old scripts because it is complicated, and we don't know what we think we know about food and nutrition.
There is tons of misinformation out there.
- Michigan State University's National Food Literacy and Engagement poll found that half of Americans say "We never or rarely seek information "about where our food was grown or how it was produced."
So despite our love of great Instagram-worthy breakfast tacos, or so-called farm-to-table dining, we just don't understand much about what we eat, and that leaves a lot of room for popularments about diet and health, especially in the era of social media, and celebrity influencers.
I mean, think about it, most of our lives revolve around meals, but the vast majority of us are unengaged with, and misinformed about both production and nutrition.
Today, less than 2% of Americans live on farms as the population shifts from rural areas into cities and suburbs.
We're further removed from agriculture than ever before.
When we find our food at the grocery store, or order something in a restaurant, we don't really know what it takes to get that meal to our table.
Where it comes from, how it's produced, who's involved, and what the steps are in terms of transportation, storage, refrigeration, or preparing a meal.
Not to mention what happens when we're done, which leads to our food waste problem.
- You could fill the worlds largest cookbook with all the things we don't know about food.
A whopping 37% of people in the U.S. don't realize that all food contains genes, even though genetically-modified organisms, a.k.a.
GMO's, are a hotly debated topic.
Plenty of research, which you can find linked down below, finds in contrary to popular belief, there's no scientific link between sugar and hyperactivity in children.
That local and organic foods aren't always best for our bodies, farm animals, or the environment.
And even though 65% of consumers look for the word natural on food labels, it's not a term that necessarily tells us what's good for our bodies.
Arsenic occurs naturally, after all, but I wouldn't recommend eating it.
- It's really hard to tell people to change the way they eat.
I mean, in my case, I would probably be following these low-carb diets as well 'cause a lot of my friends and family are, but I work in food.
If I didn't, I wouldn't know the science, and I would be looking at social media, and talking to my friends and family, and doing the things that they do because those are the people that we trust most.
- And if somehow everyone became perfectly informed on health, science, and nutrition, that's where puzzle piece two come in.
Even if everyone wanted to eat planet and people-friendly foods, we know race, ethnicity, income, and geography all play a role in access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
There's solid scientific reporting demonstrating that food secure individuals, people who have the means to not worry about feeding their families, and food-insecure individuals, those who are less able to make ends meet, view the consumption of fruits and vegetable differently.
- Food-secure households, where we know where our next meal is always coming from, those folks are making decisions based on taste, or food prep time.
But for families that are food-insecure, those frequently consist of minority single parents, and seniors.
That's when the amount that that food costs plays a real role.
They're thinking about how soon that food will spoil, when they'll have to throw it away, and also the travel time and the accessibility of markets with fresh vegetables and fruits.
- According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 12% of U.S. households were food-insecure at least some time during 2017.
Including one in six households with children.
And it would be great if we could solve the daunting problems of food-insecurity, healthy eating, and a sustainable food system simultaneously, but advocates for diets rich in fruits and vegetables have tried a lot of the obvious things.
Like offering free cooking classes, changing marketing on vegetables, and trying to make the healthier stuff tastier.
But those strategies don't seem to effect behavior in lower-income households, because knowing how to cook tasty vegetables doesn't do a lot when they're too expensive, far away, or you have to choose between putting in a few extra hours at work, and cooking dinner.
While fast food and cheap meat may be worse for our health and environment, it's affordable, often tastes pretty good, and comes ready to eat.
For a lot of people, what's on the dinner table is less of a choice than we'd like to believe.
Geographic location, access to transportation, demographics, all play a role in our dietary choices.
- It's complex and it's difficult to address with a single message, eat less meat.
If we don't have a society that supports and encourages a healthy diet, telling people to eat differently won't change behavior, and can really only alienate certain groups.
We truly do need to transform our global food system.
We know how, but we're not necessarily prepared to do it.
Because simply eating a bunch of fruits and vegetables isn't practical for most people on the planet.
- Misinformation and unequal access to healthy foods are just two of the many hurdles we'll have to tackle if we wanna make the global food system healthier for us and the planet.
This video isn't anywhere close to long enough to discuss all the forces standing in the way of a more sustainable way food system.
Like subsidies, cultural differences, and political power, land use, agricultural practices, media challenges, and more.
But because of all these, something that should be simple, eating healthier foods that don't pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
We're being asked to make really hard choices about something we really wanna be easy.
When we're feeling hangry at the end of a long day, the last thing we want is to feel the weight of the world, agricultural, and food supply systems on our shoulders.
When we look in the fridge, or walk zombie-style through a grocery store, or read the restaurant menu to find dinner.
If there's one thing that's universal about eating, beyond the fact that it brings the basic nutrition into our bodies and keeps us alive, it's that it should be enjoyable.
Making sure what's on your dinner plate is good for the planet and good for your body is not easy, but it is necessary.
To do that, we've gotta remember that food is more than what we eat.
It's a system.
One of the most massive ones our species has ever constructed.
And figuring our how to change it, it's a lot to chew on.