This is the first in a series. The Cook and the Climate is a new special report from Canada's National Observer about eating as it relates to one person and the planet, with climate-friendly recipes.

For 25 years and going, I spend on average 10 hours a day working (restaurants), playing (recipes and cooking) or reading/thinking (books and journals) about food. I have read and written about beautiful, emotional, complicated, simple, healthy, sustainable—you name it—irresponsible, lazy and depressing food. I just finished reading a 45-page journal article by the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet is one of the world’s most authoritative and rigorous medical journals. The Commission included 37 leading scientists from 16 countries and in various related disciplines.

I tend to relate all things to my personal life, so take this little ride with me. I have a habit of leaving all the cupboard doors open in the kitchen. This drives my partner crazy. It’s no reason to break up, but it grates under our skin.

Meeru Dhalwala speak at the Public Salon on family history and making chai

Me: "What’s the big deal? It’s not like I do it on purpose."

Him: "If you know it bugs me, why can’t you just make the small effort?"

If he comments or even looks at me intently while closing the cupboards, my hurt feelings simmer and come out in the tone of my responses to everything else for the remainder of the evening. I have compromised in so many other ways and why can’t he appreciate that?

We have the reverse for when he brushes his teeth and keeps the water running for 10 seconds longer than suits me. I snap about water shortages around the world and — this is a doozy, and I don’t recommend this strategy — how petty it is that, in a world about to fall into utter chaos, he focuses more on kitchen cupboards. This didn’t require couples therapy, but it took us four years to relax. It would have been faster if someone simply organized for us what we already knew but didn’t get over our defences or laziness.

This EAT-Lancet article is the equivalent of couples therapy for explaining our world as it relates to our person and the planet. The commission has written a summary for those who don’t want to read the detailed article. It’s no-nonsense and the final message is this: We’re only hopeful if we do this together.

Here’s their synopsis:

“Unhealthy diets now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined. Global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience and constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation and transgression of planetary boundaries. Taken together the outcome is dire.”

The Summary includes a #foodcanfixit. How? Here’s their straight-forward solution:

  1. A global shift toward healthy diets
  2. Improved food production practices
  3. Reduced food loss and waste

Knowing that the food sector is the largest contributor (including its land, fresh water and energy use) is reassuring in a way. I believe most of us (urbanites, suburbanites, small-towners and island dwellers) would rather engage ourselves in eating to save our planet than give up driving or airplanes.

Even if our planet were healthy, we would still want to eat well — to be lean, cancer/stroke/heart disease-free and happy. This desire is so strong that our economy depends on our health and body insecurities combined with la-la ambitions about how we’re going to look young forever and finally achieve happiness. We’ve complicated it too much and it’s time to simplify. At the risk of sounding like a pop food psychologist who wants us to achieve inner contentment and save the world in the process, here are my main thoughts on personal health. Importantly, I do not believe that food will make us happy. Only love can do that for us.

Red meat sucks for you, the Amazon and other forests. But just focus on you and you’ll automatically help the rest. If you love its taste, eat it once, at most twice, a week. If you don’t order it on my menu, I’ll eventually take it off. We work together. If I take it off before you want to stop eating, you’ll just go elsewhere and I’ll lose the business while the Amazon continues burning. (Side note: cow farts and burps are full of methane, which is way worse than CO2 and a big problem.)

Even a medium amount of red meat causes heart disease and increases your chances of cancers. Some people are eating lots of it and losing weight while giving up carbs. Lose the carbs, eat vegetables, but replace the meat. Based on its extensive and thorough research, the commission strongly recommends a 50 per cent worldwide reduction in red meat consumption and that you replace red meat with ... the new trendy phrase: Plant Based Proteins. This sounds both uppity and sterile, but it’s crucial. Replace the meat with any kind of beans, lentils, tofu or whole grain, such as quinoa or brown rice. Peanuts and other nuts also give you protein. If this truly turns you off to the point it will feel like a dreaded diet, then start replacing with eggs, fish and chicken, and find your way slowly but surely to beans, lentils or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Please don’t go on a diet or follow a food fad. Going on a diet is very different from taking on a lifestyle change that you can handle with calm and within your hard-wired personality. Struggling or accepting some form of personality lobotomy to follow any diet which inhibits otherwise fun and creative aspects of your personality isn’t going to improve your overall health and definitely not your happiness. This one is tricky between enabling a physically or emotionally harmful addiction vs. creating your own flow and rhythm between you, your body and your food.

The fewer food rules, especially the complicated persnickety ones, and the more you trust your preferences, the better. For example, I say that the combination of the Chinese, Japanese and Indians can’t be wrong, especially since they are almost 60 per cent of the world’s population. We love our white rice. It’s easy to digest and frames our foods with light satisfaction. But if you prefer brown rice, eat it.

Simple food is the best stress-free nourishment and can be a joy. Eating rich, delicious fatty foods can be treat, but not a norm. Food TV, online food sites and cookbooks with amazing photos have ruined this core joy almost in the same way online porn has gotten in the way of simply enjoying sex with another person.

And this is where I personally land on maintaining a healthy diet for myself and my family. Food and sex are the best possible ways to express and feel love with another. This is not TMI, this is enjoying simple, soulful pleasure with another. This includes enjoying your family, as you want to engage with your children so they carry forward with a zest for love. Gadgets, books and show-off websites — combined with guilt-ridden pleasure and low esteem because we don’t look perfect — won’t give us love, health or another planet.

Finally, if you hate cooking, then find someone who loves or tolerates it and become friends or just dinner buddies. You can do the cleaning.

We’re only hopeful if we do this together.

This is one of the easiest recipes ever. Actually, if you can just down-pat the saute of onion and garlic with the salt and turmeric, you can make a hundred things that will satisfy. Once you get the hang of sauteeing, you can add chopped ginger. Or change the turmeric to Italian herbs. You can use bulk chickpeas and fresh tomatoes. Exact sizes don’t matter and much of it depends on what you like.

Chickpea and Vegetable (or any) Curry with Rice

Serves 4

1 medium onion, chopped as finely as you can easily chop it

1/3 cup sunflower, grapeseed or canola oil

3 cloves or about 1 tablespoon chopped or crushed garlic

1 can (398 ml) diced tomatoes

1 – 2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon crushed cayenne pepper (optional)

1 can (398 ml) coconut milk OR 1 cup water OR 1/2 cup water with 1/2 cup whipping cream

2 cups of any combination of: chopped carrots, cauliflower, cut green beans, bell peppers. You can use frozen if you don’t mind the texture.

2 cans chickpeas or any beans you enjoy (398 ml each)

Chopped cilantro OR Italian Parsley (your preference and optional)

½ to 1 cup of roasted chopped nuts as topping (optional)

In a wide pan (at least 12 inches in diameter), combine the oil with the onion and saute on medium-high heat for 5 to 8 minutes. The smaller the onions, the quicker they will saute. And if you like a toasty-roasty onion flavor they will get that dark, golden color quickly. The larger you chop the onions the sweeter they will taste depending on how dark you get them. Once the onions are light-golden, add the garlic and saute for 1 to 2 minutes or until the garlic is light-golden.

Reduce heat to medium and pour in the canned tomatoes. Keep your face away from the pan in case the water from the tomato splatters a bit. Stir and add turmeric, salt and cayenne pepper. Stir and saute for 3 to 4 minutes or until you can see the oil glistening on the tomatoes. Add your vegetables and chickpeas. Stir well and continue cooking for 3 to 5 minutes (depends on how big or small you chopped your veggies). Stir in coconut milk or water or cream.

At this point, it depends on when you are eating. The next step is to be taken only when you are ready to eat. Cover and cook for 3 to 4 minutes or just until the curry is boiling. Remove lid immediately; otherwise, the veggies will get mushy. At the very end, stir in chopped cilantro or Italian parsley. Once the food is on the plate, top it with the roasted nuts.

Serve with your choice of rice.

Photograph of Meeru Dhalwal provided by author

Keep reading

I wonder if this author has seen this very credible study,
Inspite of the Lancet Commisson's reputation it is not the final answer on the value of an omniverous diet.
The author should be honest and admit that the Brazilian rain forest is mostly being cut down to grow crops, such as soy beans that are also for human consumption. Why doesn't she also say soy beans are bad for the environment?
If she was interested she could also look into regenerative agriculture, which is a way of farming that builds soil and sequesters carbon. Livestock are a big part of this way of producing food. They are necessary for using forage crops that help put nutrients into the soil and also producing manure that also is needed for soil fertility.
If a person thinks that they can do their bit to save the planet by not eating meat but continuing to use fossil fuels in their daily life as usual, they are sadly mistaken, maybe even delusional.
There is no doubt that the beef industry needs to make improvements but no more so than any other industry.
There is much more to say on this subject, but I will stop here for now.

Only a small proportion of soy production in Brazil and Argentina is for human consumption. Most of it is exported as animal feed -- i.e., it is an integral part of the global meat industry. Over the past decade, a "soy moratorium" in Brazil has had some real success in limiting further destruction of the Amazon for soybean crops but that moratorium may soon be overturned by the Bolsonaro government.
The soy products, like soy milk, that we buy in Canada are typically from soybeans grown in North America.

Soy is being exported to China mostly for pork production and human consumption. That is not a good argument against consuming beef in N.A. The same argument can be used for cattle... almost none of the beef we eat in Canada comes from Brazil. Clearing rainforest for any agricultural production is wrong.

True, not all meat is bad for the planet, but if we were to limit ourselves only to ethically- and sustainably-raised meat produced by regenerative agriculture, then pretty much all the meat departments in all the supermarkets would be empty. Sure, go ahead and find meat that has been 100% grassfed its entire life and fill your plate. If all North Americans were to avoid industrially-produced meat, then there would be very little meat being eaten. Problem solved.

"Most studies conclude that if you look at the amount of land used and greenhouse gas emissions produced per kilogram of meat, pasture-based cattle actually have a greater environmental impact than animals fed grains and soy. ...grazing livestock – even in a best-case scenario – are net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock. Good grazing management cannot offset its own emissions, let alone those arising from other systems of animal production." Details here:
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