27 April 2018

Should We All Give Up Eating Meat to Save the Planet?

'Should We All Give Up Eating Meat to Save the Planet?', was an event held recently in the Red Theatre at Summerhall as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival (EISF) on the 6th April 2018.

I have recently been conducting interviews with researchers, policymakers and those working for NGOs asking them about sustainable diets, and how sustainability criteria might be incorporated into existing dietary advice. These interviews showed me how, even among those who work in this area, there is a lot of uncertainty about applying the concept of sustainability to the food system in general and individual diets in particular. Public interest in nutrition and environmental research public is high but sustainable diets are a new and relatively unfamiliar idea, so they seemed an ideal topic to discuss.

The event was structured around two short (15min) presentations based on current environmental and nutrition research, followed by a 30 minute question and answer session that allowed audience members to ask questions about, or comment further on, specific issues covered in the two talks. The overall aim of the event was introduce participants to research in these areas, and encourage them to think about the impacts their own diets might have on the environment. Between the talks and the discussion session, there was also a short break to serve a selection of sustainable snacks, provided by Edinburgh Larder.

I gave the first talk which outlined the environmental impacts of food production and consumption, focusing on the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production and consumption of food. Such data shows very clearly that the foods with the greatest impact are red meat, particularly from sheep and cows. The second talk was given by Pamela Mason, a nutritionist who has recently co-authored a textbook on sustainable diets. She outlined the health impacts of the average British diet and outlined why we need to reduce our consumption of red and processed meat, eating less but better meat. One element of these changes, Pamela suggested, should be the development of sustainable dietary guidelines to advise both individuals and those in charge of public procurement, i.e. meals in schools, hospital and care homes.

The discussion session was lively and a range of divergent views were expressed, but the tone remained constructive throughout. Topics raised included: insects and in-vitro meat as alternative sources of protein; why are the GHG emissions for lamb are so high and whether changing the diet of sheep can mitigate this; is it possible to include fish in a sustainable diet; and the need for new regulation to drive reductions in food-related GHG emissions. Feedback on the event was largely favourable: ‘Very knowledgeable presenters. Really enjoyed the snack. Informative but not judgemental’. Many respondents seemed to have particularly appreciated the opportunity to ask questions and discuss these issues in more detail: ‘The long discussion was good and allowed a variety of points of view to be aired’.  

Funding for this event was provided by a University of Edinburgh CAHSS Knowledge Exchange and Impact grant, the Wellcome Trust Liminal Spaces project and Edinburgh School of Law Research Support grant.

Isabel Fletcher's slides from the event can be found here.
Pamela Mason's slides from the event can be found here.