With global warming looming, Amazonian rain forests being felled, and the world’s rivers and oceans choked with pollution, it’s easy to feel a little despondent. Is there anything we can really do to change the situation? And what role do we play in contributing to these problems? These thoughts weighed heavily on my mind and I was determined to find some answers. Oddly enough, it was my stomach that led the way.
I met chef Chad Sarno, who prepared the first meal I had ever had that was entirely made up of plants. Not a drop of butter or milk, and definitely no beef, duck, or chicken. He cooked lasagna, with cheese made from cashew nuts and pasta made from thinly sliced courgettes. Being half-Chinese, with roast duck and char siu my all- time favorite dishes, this was foreign territory for me. But I was instantly hooked. I had no idea that a plant-based meal could taste so good or be so satisfying, especially since I’d always believed a meal wasn’t a meal without a big portion of meat. So I started to investigate what impact it would have on the planet if we all adopted a plant-based diet, and this was the start of the research that led to our feature documentary film, Planeat.
Through the power of Google, I discovered the work of US environmental scientist Professor Gidon Eshel, one of the main characters in our film. He conducted a pioneering study to investigate the impact of an average diet, made up of meat, fish, dairy and plants, on the environment. He made the surprising discovery that if you want to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions it is more important to give up red meat than to buy a hybrid car. Last year, he completed further investigations, which showed how eating a diet heavy in meat and dairy is one of the main causes of ocean “dead zones,” pockets of the ocean where no fish or creature can live. This is due to the run off of nitrogen and phosphates into the sea from livestock-supporting agriculture. Eshel also discovered how eating a plant-based diet uses up half the amount of land than eating an average diet based on animal products. With 70 per cent of the world’s total agricultural land used to support the production of animals for food, shifting towards a plant-based diet can help prevent deforestation and promote biodiversity. At the same time there is a huge amount of food wasted in the process of raising animals for food. More than half the world’s crops are used to feed
livestock, and after feeding grains or soybeans to cows, for example, we only get 10 per cent back of the food value we feed to them. If we just ate the plants directly, rather than feeding the crops to animals, we would have much more food for the world’s population.
Further investigation revealed that Eshel is not alone in his thinking. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has urged people to observe one meat-free day a week to curb carbon emissions. And as the global population surges towards a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050, the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) international panel of sustainable resource management has said that diets rich in meat and dairy products are unsustainable and a global shift towards plant-based diets is needed in order to reduce the pressures on the environment.
But I had one other worry. While moving towards a plant-based diet may be good for the environment, would this be at the detriment of our own health? This led me to look into how a plant-based diet would affect our health, and I discovered the other characters in our film, Professor Colin Campbell and Dr Caldwell Esselstyn. Campbell, a nutritional biochemist at Cornell University, led a ground-breaking study that revealed that populations with a heavy animal-based diet were more likely to suffer from cancer than those with a plant-based diet. Esselstyn, surgeon and medical advisor to former US president Bill Clinton, used a plant-based diet to treat patients suffering severe heart disease. And over the course of 20 years, he showed how a plant-based diet could help prevent and even reverse coronary artery disease.
So it seems that what’s good for the environment is also good for our health, too. And it turns out we can make a difference. It’s as simple as breakfast, lunch and dinner. All we need to do is eat less meat and dairy.