OPINION: Educating eaters as a way to save the planet

by Luca Di Leo | European Institute for Innovation and Sustainability
Thursday, 25 February 2021 13:05 GMT

ARCHIVE PICTURE: A combine harvests winter wheat in Corn, Oklahoma, U.S., June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Food is at the centre of every major sustainability issue we face, yet is often overlooked. Educating the masses to eat well will help save our planet

Luca Di Leo is sustainability and food director at the European Institute for Innovation and Sustainability

Picture a teacher asking a class: ‘What is the biggest impact you have on the planet?’ Most students are likely to point to the car they drive - or how they heat or cool their homes. While transport and energy are among the biggest contributors to carbon emissions, when taken from farm to fork, food is actually the main culprit in generating greenhouse gases.

Food is at the centre of every major sustainability issue we face, yet it’s often overlooked. Meat consumption alone accounts for almost 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The food sector altogether accounts for almost 30%. While those messages are finally starting to filter through to the masses, the complexity of food systems (and the efforts of powerful lobbies) make it harder for other striking facts to come across – and for people to act upon them.

Consider these statistics just for a moment:

   - 60% of our calories come from just three crops: rice, wheat and maize. Over the past century, some 75% of plant diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide switched to genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties, degrading soils and polluting.

   - There’s more than enough food for everyone, but we waste one-third of it. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest polluter after the U.S. and China.

   - Agriculture accounts for around 70% of deforestation and water withdrawals.

   - Livestock provide just 18% of calories; farming them uses 83% of farmland.

If people, especially the young, become more aware of the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of their diets, they can spread the culture of voting with their forks (or chopsticks!) every day for the health of people and the planet - and empower others to be agents of change. Education is - arguably - one of the most effective weapons we have to accelerate the push towards the United Nations’ ambitious 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and preserve our wellbeing. 

To be sure, education alone is not enough to tackle the extremely difficult challenges we face in food system transformation. Innovation is also key, both in the field, thanks to the increasing opportunities offered by digital solutions, and in research and development labs with synthetic beef, for example. Policy measures to discourage junk food and favor healthy diets can also help.

But consider the power of making the world fully aware of the fact that by eating a lot of fruit and vegetables, it’s a big win-win for both you and the world. In many cases, change from the bottom is often more effective than a top-down policy approach. Just think of the enormous impact that Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is having on changing the behavior of future consumers. After all, Greta became committed to her cause after watching a documentary at school.

So how do we educate the masses to eat well and help save our planet? Some chefs, like the UK’s Jamie Oliver, tried to get the G20 countries to make food education compulsory in schools. Others, like the three-Michelin-star Massimo Bottura, have made ending food waste their mission, while highlighting the need for a humanistic revolution through the lens of culture. “Knowledge leads to consciousness. And when we become aware, we are one short step away from becoming socially responsible,” he said.

The media can also play a key role when it manages to create impactful and impartial information that accurately simplifies complex food issues. When I worked for the Italian food company Barilla, we teamed up with the Thomson Reuters Foundation to create the Food Sustainability Media Award to foster media coverage of food beyond taste, recognising that food is really “good” when it benefits people and Planet. 

Now, at the European Institute for Innovation and Sustainability (EIIS) I’m director of the food sustainability course, open to professionals from around the world with diverse backgrounds. With the alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, we’re taking on a huge challenge:  how to feed 10 billion people by 2050 without hurting people and the planet. We will make proposals ahead of the UN’s Food Systems Summit later this year.

During the global climate talks in Paris in 2015, food was barely mentioned. Now, it may finally become the main course of the SDGs. There's still some way to go but we're ready to start the next food revolution via education.