I recently visited in a university hospital in Montreal a relative who had suffered a significant cardiovascular event. After 24 hours, she was offered a meal: macaroni and cheese. Other options included more junk foods: pizza, hamburger, spaghetti with meat sauce, and so on. There were no vegetables, she was told, because “it was a weekend.” I ended up going to a neighbourhood food counter to buy her a proper meal. If even university hospitals cannot offer healthy food to patients, what can we expect from restaurants, schools, and corporate cafeterias?

Diet is a leading contributor to disease and premature death in Western countries. Unhealthy food is pervasive, and yet few significant public policies support healthy eating. Moreover, current food production methods have substantial negative environmental impacts. Changing our food habits would bring huge benefits, including disease prevention, healthy longevity, environmental protection, biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation. The federal government is currently in the midst of a public consultation on a national food policy – it should consider a vigorous promotion of a plant-based diet. The transition toward plant-based foods would help Canadians age healthily, reducing our dependency on medications and preserving our vitality.

Today, much of the agricultural landscape is shaped by the dominance of animal-based foods in our diets. We grow huge amounts of corn and soy, often genetically modified, to feed the animals so central to our diets. Yet we now know that an animal-centred diet is not beneficial to human health. It also results in cruelty to animals and has environmental impacts that are incompatible with global sustainability.

In his 2012 presentation “Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death,” American physician Michael Greger shows how most of the major diseases plaguing the United States are closely related to food: heart attacks, type 2 diabetes, stroke, colon cancer, and so on. Remarkably, some of the most common (e.g., type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease) are not only preventable but also, to a certain extent, reversible through diet. A recently published study from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health highlighted that shifting to a plant-based diet can help prevent type 2 diabetes. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a prominent cardiologist, has argued in favour of plant-based diets to fight heart disease: “If the truth be known, coronary artery disease is a toothless paper tiger that need never, ever exist and if it does exist it need never, ever progress.”

Not only are plant-based foods a key to health and longevity, they are also sustainable. Producing animal foods requires massive amounts of feed, land, fertilizers, chemicals, energy, and water. Animal husbandry contributes to climate change through methane emissions and emits other greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations pegs total emissions from livestock at 14.5 per cent of all human created emissions. Researchers have found that simply substituting one food for another, in this instance beans for beef, could achieve approximately 46 to 74 per cent of the reductions needed to meet the 2020 GHG target for the US – a target now defunct, as the country has pulled out of the Paris Agreement.

Recent research in the US demonstrates the enormous inefficiency of producing animal rather than plant-based foods, when considering how plant feed is converted into animal protein. Overall, the efficiency for animal meat is estimated at 8 percent.  The least efficient is beef, at a mere 3 percent;  pork is 9 percent, dairy products are14 percent, poultry is 21 percent and eggs are 31 percent.

Eating mostly plants is the best way to reduce our impact on the environment. Plant-based foods consume less land, less water, less energy, less pesticide, and less fertilizer. A special mention must be given to legumes (or pulses), such as peas, beans and lentils, which aid the nitrogen cycle, require only limited fertilizers and help to store carbon in soil.

The dominance of animal-based farming also poses the risk of pandemics. Swine and bird influenzas are a persistent danger, and new strains keep on emerging through mutations. The question is not if but when a massive outbreak of a deadly virus will occur. Reducing the share of animal food production and consumption is a way to mitigate this risk.

I recently received a message from my hospitalized relative, telling me I cannot visit because of a bacterial infection in the hospital. VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococci) are a type of bacteria that has developed resistance to antibiotics, in part because of the widespread use of antibiotics in intensive animal farming. Controlling and reducing the use of antibiotics in the animal food industry, and reducing the size of that industry through a transition towards plant-based foods, will help to curb the dangerous growth of antibiotic resistance.

We need to take a bold move towards healthy, sustainable plant-based diets. At the individual level, such a shift would contribute, in combination with other lifestyle factors, to preventing disease and improving healthy life expectancy. At the provincial and federal level in Canada, such a shift would bring considerable benefits, including ultimately reducing health-care spending. Globally, the earth’s ability to sustainably support a growing world population is at stake. Initiating a bold transition toward foods that are healthy and sustainable should be a top priority for Canada.

This article is part of the Canadian Agriculture at the Cutting Edge special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock, by casanisa

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Jean-Pierre Kiekens
Jean-Pierre Kiekens is an agronomist and an economist, educated at the universities of Brussels and Oxford. He has lectured on agricultural and development economics and has worked as an international consultant. His current areas of interest include food security, biological diversity and climate change.

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