Life would certainly be better for us all in uninteresting times – without our current disasters of political instability, the war in Ukraine, climate change and the cost-of-living crisis. Amidst such disasters it can be hard to find ways through what can feel like a never-ending thicket of thorns.
Yet kindness – the root of most traditional festivities – can be a guiding light for navigating harsh times. As I hope you will have experienced over this festive period, Christmas, along with Diwali, Purim, Eid, Vesak, all have acts of kindness at their heart, with the giving and sharing of food a common factor. Making kind food choices during festivities and beyond can be one way of taking control amid some of the crises we face.
For decades now, our food system has been geared to producing ‘cheap’ intensively produced food that costs us all dear – through our taxes and the detrimental impacts on our health and environment. Intensively produced food is something we pay for three times: firstly, at the supermarket check-out. Secondly, through our taxes to pay for the billions of pounds of subsidies every year that go to agriculture, largely to encourage further intensification. And thirdly, and again largely through our taxes, for the clean-up costs to our health and environment.
Decent food for all
The cost-of-living crisis has brought into sharp focus the tension between high-quality sustainable food and the needs of low-income families. Yet everyone deserves access to healthy, sustainable, nutritious food. Even with so-called ‘cheap’ food, somebody, somewhere along the chain pays.
Expert commentators are clear that simply making food cheaper isn’t the answer. Many of the four million people working in food and farming in the UK for example – whether farmers or those working in the processing industry, supermarkets or hospitality – are experiencing food poverty.
What is needed is a change of system so that decent, healthy, animal-friendly and environmentally sound food becomes a basic human right. There are encouraging signs that governments are increasingly asking how such an overhaul can be achieved. The European Union has been debating the future of food and farming, not least through its Farm to Fork strategy which aims to make food systems “fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly”. Which is a welcome admission that currently they’re not.
At global level, the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit brought world leaders together in New York to focus on how food systems need to be transformed. Food is responsible for a third of greenhouse gases. In addition, intensive farming is damaging to soil, can produce unhealthy food and often doesn’t result in fair incomes for the workers involved.
Reduce bills by a third
In the UK, the government’s food tsar, Henry Dimbleby, published a National Food Strategy which declared that Britain must change what it eats and the way it produces food to stop "terrible damage" to people's health and the environment. It called for meals with more vegetables and fruit and less fat, sugar and salt, and built on advice from the government’s Climate Change Committee, which said that we must reduce the amount of meat we eat by 35 per cent in order for the UK to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
So, where does this leave us during a cost-of-living crisis? Recent research by Oxford University revealed that, in countries such as Britain, the US, Australia and across western Europe, adopting a vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian diet could slash food bills by up to one-third.
It’s perhaps no coincidence then that each new year is now greeted by a phenomenon known as Veganuary. This year, we are again being encouraged to try vegan for January and beyond. Using the slogan, “Where there’s hummus, there’s hope!”, Veganuary – now in its tenth year – is supported by Made in Chelsea influencer Lucy Watson and X-Men and Taken star, Famke Janssen.
Talking about food price inflation, Veganuary’s chief executive, Ria Rehberg told me: “It’s actually quite inexpensive if you eat a wholefood plant-based diet where you eat a lot of vegetables and legumes. We know that people do Veganuary for three different reasons: either for their own health, for animals or for the environment.”
The organisation’s survey of participants suggests that half of those who take the pledge quickly notice health benefits. “It’s a win-win; a lot of people will feel better after doing it, but they will also feel they’re doing their bit to protect animals and the environment,” Rehberg told me.
Making a difference
Which puts me in mind of something legendary conservationist, Dr Jane Goodall once said: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
My resolution then for the year ahead is to choose food based on kindness and what might make the most positive difference. Kind choices have the power to make an incredible impact – to tackle and help beat the otherwise ‘interesting times’ we face. And as an added benefit, they might just save money too.
Philip Lymbery is chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat; Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were; and Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf