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How Food Can Help Solve Our Climate and Biodiversity Crises

The Library's Earth Month talks concluded with Charles McNeill speaking about the global food system
Charles McNeill speaks about food resiliency during his Earth Month talk at the Library on April 29.

The final installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report was just released on March 20: an eight-year, 8,000 page undertaking, providing the most comprehensive scientific assessment of climate change yet.

I spoke about the implications of this report at the Bowen Island Food Resilience Society and Bowen Island Public Library event on April 29.

The report makes uncomfortable reading showing how already with 1.1 degrees Celsius of global temperature rise, changes to the climate system not seen for thousands of years are now happening all over the world. CO2 levels are higher than in 2 million years, and the last decade was warmer than any period for the past 125,000 years. Since 2008, extreme floods and storms have forced over 20 million people from their homes every year.

So what can we do about it?

Fortunately, there is a lot we can do in our own lives.

Believe it or not, changing our diet to eat more plants and less meat is one of the most powerful and effective things we can do for the climate – as well for the planet’s biodiversity and our own health.

Let me explain.

Of course we need to rapidly shift away from burning fossil fuels – the number one cause of the climate crisis. And this is why the proposed LNG plant in Howe Sound (and burning primary forests for electricity in BC for that matter) are such bad ideas and should be stopped.

But the report told us that the transformation of our Food System is also needed to avoid cataclysmic impacts.

The way we produce and consume food today is broken. Why?

(I) Diets are the single largest driver of ill health and premature mortality, with more than 2 billion people overweight and over 800 million hungry on the planet. Medical evidence shows that a plant-based diet can: reduce risks of Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, certain cancers, and mortality rates.

(II) The food system is responsible for 1/3 of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and if not transformed will, by itself, push us over the far too dangerous 2 degrees C threshold.

(III) Agriculture – especially livestock production - is responsible for 60-80% of all biodiversity loss, driving at least ¾ of all tropical forest loss. And beef, by itself, causes 80% of the deforestation in the Amazon.

Jacqueline Massey

Four big shifts are needed to fix the food system:

  • Shift our diets to more plants and less meat
  • Slash food loss and waste
  • Shift to regenerative, organic, nature-positive, carbon sequestering food production - no more industrialized meat production 
  • Secure fair, equitable livelihoods for food producers and food workers

The first ‘shift’ is one we can each do three times a day -- by reducing meat and dairy products that generally emit far more greenhouse gases, use up much more land and freshwater, and cause more pollution than plant-based foods. For example, to produce 100 grams of protein from beef requires 75 times more land than the same amount of protein from tofu!

Since meat and dairy are a major contributor to the carbon footprint of a typical Canadian lifestyle, switching to plants is an effective way to reduce food related emissions by up to 85%.

A vast and growing body of medical evidence confirms that a plant-based diet is a powerful way to achieve good health, and Canada’s Dietary Guidelines supports this: “Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and protein foods should be consumed regularly. Among protein foods, consume plant-based more often.“ (Bowen resident, Dr. Hasan Hutchinson, led the production of these progressive guidelines.)

In other words, science confirms that the foods we should eat for our own personal health are the same foods we should eat for the planet’s health! A very fortunate confluence that gives me hope for the future of life on this planet, including our own.

To summarize, transforming our food system, notably by shifting our diets to more plants, can help us achieve our global climate and biodiversity goals for a viable planet and improve the health and well-being of millions of people.

Surely this is action we can all take.

[Note: See slides and video of my talk on this topic at ]

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