Solving global dietary problems is a bigger challenge than climate change, scientist says

feeding a child
CC BY 2.0 Oscar Rethwill

The director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre says it's a huge problem that meat is so "culturally embedded in Western societies."

Not many things rival climate change when it comes to big global problems needing to be solved; but according to Professor Johan Rockström, improving the global diet will be much more difficult than dealing with climate change. Rockström is the director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and he spoke at the Sustainability Summit hosted by The Economist this past week in London.

“Meeting the climate challenge [to decarbonize world economies] is the easy one. Meeting the health [diet] challenge is the difficult one,” he stated.

The two are closely entwined, however, since dietary choices have a significant impact on the way in which resources are used to produce food. Fortunately, as people move toward plant-based eating, thereby improving their personal health, the planet will benefit, too. Rockström is pessimistic, however, because not many people want to make that switch. Meat eating is so “culturally embedded in Western societies.”

Rockström’s recipe for improving global health while fighting climate change also includes cutting down on food waste – a topic we’ve explored at length on TreeHugger. With 30 percent of food produced for human consumption going to waste worldwide, there is potential to salvage a significant amount of food and redirect to populations that could benefit from it.

Reclaiming degraded land and converting it to agricultural production is another way to help the diet/climate conundrum. Rockström rejects the idea that virgin land should be cleared in order to increase agricultural output:

“We have already transferred 50 percent of the land surface to agriculture. What remains of the globe’s natural capital should be left untouched to protect biodiversity. What we do over the next 50 years will determine outcomes over the next 50,000 years.”

Rockström’s thoughts are a valuable reminder of the power of the kitchen, and how the collective decisions we make every day regarding food at home – what we cook, how we prepare it, what we can reuse and keep out of the trash – have an impact on the planet and, happily, our health, as well.

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