What should we be eating and how should it be produced?

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Changing the way we produce food could reverse climate change, but only if we can determine what is currently wrong and find new approaches

Has there ever been so much discussion (indeed, argument) about what we should be eating? It seems each day another group of experts tell us something we didn’t expect and often don’t agree with about food.

I have to admit to being one of these so-called experts. Myself and several colleagues published an article recently in an online journal on some of the issues of a vegan diet in terms of micronutritional deficiencies. It was read by thousands of people and the comments soon flowed in. Vegans really did not like it.

The same week I read a great article by Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory. While lambasting factory farming of animals, he pointed out that without properly managed livestock rearing the issues of desertification and climate change cannot be tackled. Perhaps this needs to be factored into the thinking of some vegetarians and vegans.

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So what else did this week of food controversy bring? Well how was this for a headline? ‘Organically farmed food has a bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed food, due to the greater areas of land required.’ The Swedish academics who published the work in Nature went on to explain that the yields per hectare for organic foods are much lower due to the fact that fertilisers are not applied. While eating organic food is not all about its environmental benefits, such reports should make us all think about how complex things are.

I’ve been discussing with a number of forward-thinking people what a ‘food revolution’ might look like. Using (and not abusing) our natural resources to their maximum, restoring decimated soils, reclaiming deserts, preserving biodiversity and so on. We could reverse climate change by food choice but only if we can determine what is currently wrong and find new approaches to production.

I adopted the flexitarian approach some months ago. I also decided to reduce the amount of processed foods I consume. Is it better for my health and the planet? I certainly hope so, but it’s not so difficult a lifestyle – and the ‘pleasure’ of eating has certainly been enhanced.

Professor Chris Elliott is director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University, Belfast

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