As I write this, school students across the globe are preparing to go on strike on 15 March; in response to what they see as inaction by those in power, i.e. adults. It escalated quickly. The world first heard of a young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, when she went on strike outside the Swedish Parliament building in August 2018. In December 2018, Thunberg addressed the UN Climate Change Conference and in January 2019, spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In a few weeks, Thunberg can be credited with adding fuel to the fire of a global movement by mobilizing tens of thousands (if not more) students around the globe to deal to the inaction of adults. Of course, Thunberg is not the first person to speak of climate change, nor is she the first person to demand action – why then has she managed to achieve global outrage and action? To find the answer to this and to how it may relate to food systems, we need to look at another example of rapid change: single-use plastic.
The demise of single-use plastic bags
In a similar vein to Thunberg’s climate change action is the rapid escalation of understanding of the impact of single-use plastic bags on the environment. Some would argue that action has taken far too long and that the abrupt discontinuation of single-use plastic bags in supermarkets has been a long time in the making. Fifteen years ago, if you took your own bag to a supermarket (in New Zealand) you were considered a bit of a new-age hippy, five years ago you were considered ‘on trend’, and today it is normal (and required, if you don’t want to be dropping groceries on the way out of the door). Food companies, globally, are scrambling to develop new packaging techniques that meet both safety requirements and demands from consumers tired of unnecessary plastic wrapping. Supermarkets are springing up that are completely plastic free, and milk is again appearing in glass bottles. What happened? We reached the tipping point on both climate change and single-use plastic; that is, we reached a critical point where enough people knew enough about the situations that we found ourselves at the point “beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place” (Merriam Webster dictionary).
So, what's the relationship with food?
There is no doubt that both climate change and issues such as single-use plastic impact directly on the food supply chain – both in terms of food safety and food security (used here in the sense of our ability to access and purchase sufficient safe and healthy food). Another related tipping point looms – the potential shift from animal protein-based diets to diets that are predominantly plant based. A recent UK report found that 29% of Britons surveyed reported eating less meat in the previous 12 months; this was slightly higher among women respondents. In the US, the trend away from red meat to other proteins (predominantly chicken) is expected to continue (beef production has been stable since 1970 whereas chicken production has increased by 5 times) but overall, the US remains a leader in beef consumption – in fact US beef consumption is four times higher than the world average. While animal protein consumption remains high in the US, some commentators are reporting a concomitant rise in the number of people who self-report as vegetarians. In some ways this seems all a little contradictory, but it is important to remember that food systems are complex (to say the least) and these figures need to be considered alongside other food system dimensions such as malnourishment and obesity. Data from the OECD obesity database shows that in 2017 38% of American adults were obese, NZ did not fare so much better with 31% of adults considered obese.
No more soggy tofu
While choices such as vegetarianism or veganism are personal, other factors such as obesity and the food footprint from traditional protein production (or, in other words the potential impact of intensive meat production on climate change, with agriculture contributing 15% of all emissions) are pushing us even closer to the protein tipping point. The rise of so-called protein options that mimic the taste, smell and texture of animal protein but that have a smaller environmental footprint and for which “no animal was hurt in the production of this product” has been phenomenal – one UK report found a 987% increase for meat-free food in 2017. However, it is considered that for these to be successful in changing our eating habits they must taste good. The days of soggy tofu as a meat substitute are long behind us and with it comes new opportunities for primary production: jackfruit as a substitute for pulled pork, quinoa and beans as hamburger meat, cauliflower as chicken – while these are not at the same level of sophistication as the likes of Beyond Meat or Impossible Burgers they do bring accessible alternatives into most kitchens. As an aside, quinoa has seen a nearly 200% increase in ‘menuing’ (being offered on menus) over the past four years. In other words, quinoa (even though most of us mispronounce it) is certainly mainstream.
What will it take for the tipping point to be reached?
What will it take for us to reach the tipping point? That is a difficult thing to guess. As the impact of emerging markets such as India and China impact protein production we are likely to see an increase in global demand for red meat. However, 31-42% of India’s population are vegetarian (in comparison, only 4-5% of China’s population) so it would be erroneous to assume that there will be a direct population size increase in demand, it is also plausible that the proportion of the population of these mega-countries will want little, or no, red meat. Any increase in demand is likely to be mitigated by strong drivers in other countries to decrease consumption (for example, health, animal welfare concerns and climate change drivers); at the same time there is the rise of alternative proteins that provide real and attractive options for those who still crave a dripping burger (without the ‘guilt’).
While we cannot guess when the tipping point will be reached (if at all); if both climate change and plastic bags are examples to go by, it will be sudden and strong when it happens. In the meantime, we continue to edge towards a significant reduction of animal protein, one vege burger at a time.