Reducing meat and dairy consumption: easier said than done, or easier done than said?

Not just easy; also delicious. Caterpillar Dream

In his 2011 ASSA Cunningham Lecture this month, food policy expert Professor Tim Lang suggested that we “experiment” with alternative diets to reduce our meat and dairy consumption. Lang suggested that an evidence–policy gap exists in relation to food and discussed the range of urgent and persistent failings of our current food systems.

What do we know?

We know that livestock production has a range of negative environmental impacts. These include:

  • biodiversity loss
  • surface soil loss
  • salinity
  • pollution of waterways
  • eutrophication of seas.

We know that livestock products, and in particular dairy, have a high virtual water content. We also know that we live in the world’s driest continent and are likely to face future droughts and increased stress on water supplies into the future.

We know that the livestock sector globally is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions leading to dangerous climate change. This is despite the recent findings that the Australian northern cattle herd emit 30% less methane than previously thought.

Processes in the food and agriculture system that lead to greenhouse gas emissions and population health outcomes (click for larger image). Friel S et al, The Lancet 374(9706)

We know that phosphorus scarcity presents a considerable threat to our food security and that producing meat products require 10 times more phosphorus than is required to produce vegetable-based products.

We know that overfishing is leading to extreme pressures on marine ecosystems. And we know that fishstocks worldwide are over-exploited or depleted, requiring urgent reductions in fishing if there is to be any chance of recovery.

At the same time, we now know that well-planned plant-based diets, including vegan diets, are healthy and nutritionally sound at all stages of the lifecycle. We also know that replacing meat with more plant foods helps prevent diet related diseases such as cancer, obesity and heart disease.

Despite all that we know, oddly, the Australian government continues to invest in and provide support for our unsustainable livestock industries.

And we continue to have the pervasive presence of meat, dairy and fish in our nutrition guidelines.

It would be safe to say that an evidence–policy gap is indeed occurring.

But isn’t it all too hard?

Public discussion of sustainable diets is often plagued by an underlying belief and expectation that plant-based diets are too difficult to achieve. There’s an idea that transitioning as a nation to a new dietary and food regime is likely impossible.

This is akin to giving up before trying.

Isn’t it rather too convenient to assume that social change is just too hard? Our high levels of meat and dairy consumption are recent historical facts, which suggests otherwise.

We don’t actually need meat to live, or even to thrive. Lola Lollipop