Hamburgers and fish and chips have had a difficult spring. In March, Netflix launched Seaspiracy, a controversial Netflix docu-drama slamming the commercial fishing industry. Within days, it was among the platform's top 10 movies, drawing praise from celebrities like musician Bryan Adams and pro cyclist Chris Froome.
Weeks later, the recipe publishing giant Epicurious announced it was ditching beef because of environmental concerns. Shortly after, Eleven Madison Park — one of the world's top-ranked restaurants — said that it is no longer serving meat or fish.
With each announcement, the internet's army of critics and commentators jumped at the opportunity to attack someone else's dinner. Yet beneath the noise lies an uncomfortable truth: We need to change what we eat.
Cattle emit roughly the same amount of emissions as 910 million cars each year, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Last week, the UN reported that about a third of the world's fish populations are being overfished.
But will bashing beef and slamming seafood help?
“I don't think it's going to cause any cultural shift,” said Silvia Secchi, a professor of geography and sustainability sciences at the University of Iowa who studies the environmental impact of food and farming. “It might be causing some cultural wars, (but) I don't think it's very serious in terms of addressing the fundamental problems we face.”
The problems with how we produce food are varied, she explained, but in North America, they lie primarily with the industrial farms and globalized supply chains that supply most of the continent's food. Industrialized farming — whether of cattle, chickens, or corn — concentrates the negative impact of food production into relatively small areas.
For instance, intensively growing a handful of crops like corn or soy requires pesticides and fertilizers; both degrade soil health and biodiversity. Raising thousands of pigs or chickens in confined barns can lead to manure and antibiotics contaminating nearby environments, and is associated with lower animal welfare, she noted.
We need to change what we eat. But will bashing beef and slamming seafood help? @ProfSecchi @dyhiapadilla
Nor do these problems stop at the farm gate: Most North American food production, processing, and distribution relies on migrant and temporary workers filling low-wage, dangerous, and backbreaking jobs for minimal pay. And about two-thirds of the 35.5 million tonnes of food waste generated in Canada annually is thrown out before it reaches supermarket shelves, according to food rescue organization Second Harvest.
“We need to think more holistically and systematically about the linkages between how we grow our food and how we eat it,” Secchi explained. Helping farmers farm with agroecological or regenerative techniques — a suite of practices that integrate livestock into crop and pasture farming to promote soil health and carbon sequestration — is essential. This will likely make food production, particularly meat, more expensive, she acknowledged, but that's not necessarily bad if it reduces how much of it we eat.
“Eating beef more sparingly — it's what we need to do,” she said.
Yet some people believe no level of meat consumption is sustainable.
“The entire animal industry is unsustainable on every level, not just ecologically, but morally — for humans, for workers, for health, for everyone,” said Jason Scorse, professor of food studies and environment at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “The question is: How do we accelerate to a new ... protein system?”
The solution, he said, is making “meat” from plants — or to grow it in vats. Lab-grown meat is becoming increasingly prominent, with Singapore approving the first lab-grown meat for commercial sale last year.
Alternative meats — meat-like products that are produced from plant protein or grown in a lab — are surging in popularity. Driven by demand from consumers who have decided to cut meat from their diets and efforts by companies like McDonald's and Maple Leaf Foods to reduce their environmental footprints, the market for alternative meat is expected to reach $23.1 billion by 2023.
That shift can't come fast enough, said Scorse.
“If we get this economically viable within, say, 10 years, we could be growing perfectly clean, bacteria-free cuts of beef and pork in breweries. If it can get cost-competitive, it's a game over for factory farming,” he said, arguing that regenerative and agroecological farming techniques will never be able to produce enough food to feed the world affordably.
Yet, Secchi is skeptical of Scorse's utopian vision.
“This other stuff that people are making is highly processed food, whether it's lab-grown or fake meat,” she said. “It's another industrial product... The way to reduce our environmental footprint is to eat better, and that includes a little bit of meat, in my opinion, for those people who want to eat it.”
The same could be said for seafood, noted Dyhia Belhabib, a fisheries scientist who specializes in illegal fishing, conservation, and food security. For years, environmentalists, including the directors of Seaspiracy, have argued that all fishing should end. That perspective, she explained, is deeply problematic.
“It's basically like saying something really racist about somebody or a group of people,” she said. “For me, it's the same thing, because it's not only stereotyping fish or the problems of fishing, but it's also (stereotyping) whole coastal communities and their cultural traditions ... which then leads to discriminatory approaches.”
There are definitely issues in the world's fisheries, she said. Industrial fishing fleets, for instance, are driving overfishing worldwide. Bottom trawling — a common practice among the planet's industrial fleets — emits roughly as much CO2 as the world's farms combined, according to a groundbreaking study released earlier this year.
Failing to distinguish these harmful practices from the thousands of sustainable, smaller-scale fisheries worldwide — many of them culturally and economically important and essential for many of the world's poorest people to meet their nutritional needs — is a “dangerous, discriminatory view,” she said.
A similar argument could be said for farming, Secchi noted. Livestock is central to many sustainable farming systems, and is culturally important to millions worldwide. The key is implementing laws that ensure it is produced (or caught), processed, distributed, and consumed sustainably — and ensuring wages are high enough for everyone to afford healthy, culturally relevant food.
Simplifying this complexity into a black and white view where people who eat meat or seafood are bad — and those who don't are good — will not save the planet, the researchers agree.
“Oversimplifying an issue always emanates from a place of ignorance,” said Belhabib — even if the effort is laden with good intentions meant to save the planet.
“(Even) good intentions have led to disasters,” she said.