When former US vice-president Al Gore won an Oscar for his documentary An Inconvenient Truthin 2007, the same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the positions he and others were laying out that showed the earth was warming at a terrifyingly fast pace were by no means considered settled science, and even today there are still so-called “climate deniers.” However, the changes we've seen in attitudes and beliefs regarding climate change since 2007 have been nothing short of astonishing.
Partially due to demographics, young people growing into environmentally-conscious adults, and a great deal to do with – to most – undeniable evidence of a changing climate unfolding across virtually every part of the planet, a good percentage of humanity has today come to agree with the scientific evidence. Perhaps more importantly, huge numbers of people have also become willing to make efforts and even sacrifices as we collectively try to – if nothing else – slow the pace of global warming.
Countries are putting expiration dates on petroleum-fueled engines, retiring coal-fired power plants, and signing ambitious carbon reduction plans. On a more micro scale, individuals are taking reusable cups to coffee shops (where plastic straws are no longer offered), using reusable shopping bags, and changing what they wear and eat. Even some meat lovers are joining the growing legion of vegetarians and vegans and choosing to barbecue a plant-based sausageor consume non-dairy milk to help reduce their carbon footprint.
The last decade or so might one day be seen as a turning point, perhaps not the decade we began reversing climate change, but at least the era in which substantial numbers of former fence-sitters picked a side, and began taking actions – both large and small – toward making the world a better place for future generations. We are not anywhere near the finish line, of course, but it sure is nice to have at least begun running in what’s going to be an epic marathon that could determine our – and countless other – species’ survival.
The idea that global warming is some kind of hoax has thankfully become a fringe view embraced by people who are seen by much of the rest of us as the equivalent of flat earthers, and it's fair to take at least a minor victory lap. But among the most important areas change isn’t coming fast enough is personal lifestyle choices such as what we eat. There have never been more vegetarians and vegans than now at any time in modern history, but the globe is nowhere close to seeing the drastic reductions in meat and dairy consumption that scientists say are needed to make a significant dent in carbon release reduction.
It's certainly not all bad news on the food front. Meat substitutes are becoming mainstream and while it’s fair to say they’ve had a rocky start; the industry is finding its way and new tech is providing new and better options. Perhaps you’ve seen reports on Israeli-made 3D-printed meat, which is created with artificial intelligence so that layers with different textures and flavors – all plant-based and made with 100% natural ingredients – can replicate the taste (and even the sizzle as it cooks) of animal protein in a way never seen before. Or perhaps you’ve noticed that in some places, upwards of 30% of consumers are buying non-dairy milk– made from everything from soy to nuts.
That said, the pace of change when it comes to the foods we eat – in particular heavily polluting and carbon-intensive meat and dairy – isn’t moving fast enough, despite it being among the ‘easiest’ things to change. “Just stop eating so much meat and drinking so much milk, right?” – Yeah… much easier said than done.
There are plenty of studies that strongly indicate that huge reductions in the consumption of meat are necessary if we are to have any chance at slowing or reversing climate change. And by ‘massive reductions,’ we're talking about cutting out something like 75% of red meat consumption, to take just one example.
In late 2021 Science Directput out a study from Sweden that analyzed meat substitutes and tried to pinpoint the barriers that are stopping some from entertaining the idea of either completely quitting animal protein or significantly reducing their consumption. The study found four thematic issues that included uncertainty, skepticism, health, and identity.
For vegetarians and vegans, it's all too easy to look down from a high horse and wonder what the problem is. Is eating meat really that important? Apparently, the answer is a solid ‘yes’ for many hundreds of millions of people. Perhaps, therefore, a bit more reflection – such as we see in the study from Sweden – and a bit less preaching could be useful. Breaking down those four barriers noted, one sees that the final on the list is identity.
People and cultures have developed unique foods that generally revolve around some type of meat and these dishes are a part of personal and national identities. From fermented shark in Iceland to Mexican beef tacos, food and identity are inexorably linked.
We're not aware of anyone working on substitutes for fermented shark, but most other meats are being recreated in plant-based form. Plant-based meat is a fast-growing segment of the economy that had been projected to grow exponentially, but lately, there have been some speed bumps. As the report cited above notes, there is uncertainty, skepticism, and questions about health. Consumers are skeptical about whether a meat substitute product is as nutritious as animal protein, and there is uncertainty related to a variety of factors including price.
The good news is that a seismic change has arrived. It wasn't long ago that terms like sustainability and ethical consumption were perceived by many as “greenwashing” or buzzwords used by those seeking to further an agenda – agendas that weren’t necessarily based on a genuine desire to make the world a better place. Today, however, countries, corporations, and individuals are using and applying those terms to national and corporate policies as well as daily life choices. And while it’s still fair to question the motivations behind many of these eco-friendly moves, at least it’s moving.
Now that the train has left the station, it’s time to double down on finding ways to get people to make better choices in the dining car.