Essay | 2023 World Food Forum: The dichotomy of plant-based diets vs livestock
It was about 6 p.m. at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome as the room filled with vegans and plant-based advocates, livestock producers and cattle industry representatives — and an odd mix of tension and excitement. Individuals representing diverse interests in agrifood systems watched as panelists mingled, just minutes before they would proceed to sit opposite one another, a clear ideological divide.
The stage was set for an evening session at the World Food Forum (WFF) entitled ‘The Great Food Debate: Plant-Based vs Livestock,’ feeding the idea that there are only two sides to take in this debate. This dichotomy fails to represent the average consumer who identifies somewhere between a vegan and a carnivore, and is largely removed from the reality of how food is produced.
It also fails to take into consideration the plethora of rationales people give for eating less meat or more plants, or neither. Not to mention from a global perspective, there is surely no right side to take. This dichotomy also fails to give space to the nuance that is needed to reflect context-specific challenges and opportunities for solutions-oriented discussion.
Breaking down the barriers
Valuable points were shared and diverse voices were heard on both sides of this table, and across other tables at the WFF. Namely, high levels of production of animal-source food, particularly livestock, contributes disproportionately to the greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation from agrifood systems globally, but sustainable livestock can offer climate benefits. Additionally, overconsumption of red and processed meat is associated with increased risk of diet-related chronic disease, but red meat is a good source of vitamin B12. Finally, producing livestock is core to many people’s identities and livelihoods, but the effects of climate change disproportionately impact vulnerable communities.
This complexity left many of us asking ‘where do we go from here?’ as one audience-member posed to the panelists after the debate. Unfortunately, there was no time for this question to be answered and I was simply left to ponder. This question seemed to encapsulate much of what I was feeling as I went in and out of other events over the course of the week — what do I do next as an individual and what do I take back to D.C.? Perhaps this was an unintended consequence of so many topics, so many perspectives, and so little time for in-depth discussion.
After a return to normal life and some time for reflection, I feel simultaneously hopeful that I am not pondering alone. People from all over are thinking about the impact of our food production and consumption on the environment, on livelihoods, on our future – and advocating for an agrifood system transformation that is healthy, sustainable, and socially just.
Thinking about how best to communicate this urgency, how to hold governments and corporations accountable, how to empower communities. People are calling for innovation, and not just the start-up kind, but innovative pathways for preserving, scaling, and repurposing traditional knowledge and practices to our urgent crises. But how do we better address this question?
So where do we go from here?
As a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in policy, with a passion for agrifood policy and research, here are my suggestions for a path forward.
First, we go in search of common ground. Our goals on both sides of the table, collectively as food systems advocates, are largely the same — leading a healthy, sustainable, and socially just agrifood system transformation. And what is standing in the way of this transformation is the power of large corporations in shaping what food we produce, process, distribute, purchase, consume, and ultimately waste. This includes the unsustainable agrifood policies that govern these relationships.
What’s more, most folks in the room seemed to agree that industrial livestock production, particularly in high-income countries like the U.S., is problematic for humans, environment, and livelihoods, suggesting much less of a debate than the name suggests.
Next, we go beyond the “what” to the “how,” which requires increasingly context-specific discussions as agrifood system transformations will look different everywhere. This is not to say we can’t learn from contexts beyond our own, but narrowing in can help us avoid a needless debate about meat reduction on a global scale, in which wildly different foodscapes will rightfully differ in their perspectives.
We must be explicit about where change is needed and who has the responsibility to mitigate our food systems’ impact on the health of our planet, ourselves, and others. One encouraging panel discussion in a separate event on alternatives to animal-source foods did just that by acknowledging the need for differentiation between livestock in industrialized Western diets and livelihoods and those of pastoralists in the Global South.
Representatives of the FAO and panelists alike were in agreement in their call to consider alternatives to animal-source foods through the lens of nutrition, environmental, food safety, and livelihood impacts. Prioritizing a systems perspective in research and in policy-making can allow us to evaluate trade-offs inherent to agrifood system transformation.
This frame begins to break the dichotomies with a “less, but better” approach, rejecting the notion that sustainable food systems require global veganism and a lack of food choice. In countries like the U.S., where meat is largely produced unsustainably and in excess, as well as over-consumed, regeneratively produced and ethically sourced meat can offer nutritional benefits when consumed in moderation. This also helps alleviate the environmental burden associated with intensive livestock production. Even minimal shifts to plant-forward dietary patterns can significantly address the adverse effects of excessive meat consumption, promoting both personal and planetary well-being.
Where do we go from here in the U.S.? We need to pursue policies that empower producers and consumers alike to transition to increasingly healthy and sustainable foods, such as minimally processed plant proteins. Social norms that justify overconsumption of meat should be broken by demanding attention to agrifood systems as a solution to the climate crisis.
Lastly, we need to move toward agrifood policy and advocacy conversations that are inclusive of diverse perspectives, including youth. Changing behavior is challenging and we need effective policy strategies that prioritize both supply- and demand-side structural changes necessary to facilitate sustainable dietary behavior change.