Stockholm Food Movement’s April session saw a full house at Impact Hub Stockholm listening to featured speakers Amanda Wood, researcher and contributor to the EAT Foundation Lancet Report, and Jörgen Andersson, regenerative farmer and founder of the Savory Institute Nordic Hub.
The topic raised many divisive questions about the role of animals in sustainable diets: Should we all be vegan? Do ethical livestock-raising methods even exist? Are cows bad for the climate, or could they be the key to restoring our planet’s soil-based ecosystems?
Eating for health and sustainability
Unhealthy diets are the leading cause of poor health globally, the EAT-Lancet study declares, drawing from analyses of 20 years of dietary data from 195 countries. Alongside nutrition targets for an estimated human population of 10 billion by 2050, the study also considers sustainable food production. The study has been applauded for proposing a world first “menu of actions”, but has also come under fire, with some interpreting the report as vegan propaganda, with others criticising the suggested diet for including meat at all. Many have attacked its methodology and scope, casting doubt on its results. The World Health Organisation (WHO) withdrew its endorsement after concerns were raised about cultural heritage, job loss, and limiting consumer choices.
In spite of this, many findings of the global study corroborate what I’ve read elsewhere: eating too much red meat comes with health risks and an alarmingly high carbon footprint. Food loss and food waste plague the farm-to-table process everywhere, and we are not eating enough nuts and seeds.
“The only scenario where we are able to stay within the environmental thresholds will require the absolute most ambitious improvements to our production practices.” – Amanda Woods
These ambitious improvements include doubling our consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, halving consumption of red meat and sugar, and eating less at each meal.
On the topic of the Impossible Burger and other meat substitutes, Amanda sees such foods as a bridge for people wanting to shift to plant-based diets. She also cautions, “just because it’s vegetarian doesn’t automatically mean that it’s healthy”; instead we should consider the nutritional profile of our meals.
And what about eating more diverse meats seasonally? Amanda admits that the study doesn’t look into seasonality or specific local contexts. The Nordic priorities lie largely in reducing food loss and waste, an area identified for its huge improvement potential. However, she believes that “if we just stopped buying cheap meat from outside Sweden, we would immediately halve our meat consumption, without touching local farmers.”
The soil will save us
Jörgen Andersson, whose farm manages a herd of rotational grazing animals, has a different focus: soil ecosystems. When he was growing up, there were no cows on farms. Everyone had a tractor. But the removal of grazing animals has resulted in a malfunctioning system and now our ecosystems are in crises.
The potential for land-based carbon sequestration is significant. According to The New York Times, if 5% of rangeland in California was dusted with compost made with manure, the carbon sequestered would offset about 80% of the state’s agricultural emissions – the equivalent of removing nearly 6 million cars from the road. Jörgen believes we must bring grazing animals back, and in great numbers. He is certain that we need only to mimic nature for the system to sort itself out, citing the successes of regenerative farmers such as Gabe Brown who employ holistic farming methods such as diversified cropping and rotational grazing.
“Our management is the difference between destruction and vitality of the ecosystem. That’s the crucial message…there’s nothing wrong about cows. It’s how we manage our resources that is the difference.”
Popular science has been slow to undo its vilification of cows, and traditional farming mindsets are not so easily overcome. The majority of farms today produce crops with shallow roots that leave topsoil exposed when they are harvested. Soil like this cannot hold itself together, let alone break down carbon to slow atmospheric warming.
“Climate change is a symptom of underperforming ecosystems,” Jörgen says. Like it or not, humans determine how nature survives, and we must now be stewards of our own planet.
With growing evidence supporting the effectiveness of regenerative farming methods, he hopes that more farmers will move away from traditional monoculture practices and reintroduce livestock into their crop ecosystems.
Stockholm Food Movement is an initiative designed to bring education for sustainable development to the people of Stockholm. Its events aim to inspire future leaders and changemakers of the food industry.