One of these events was a panel discussion around the question "What's stopping your diet being more sustainable?", and I was one of the four panelists.
It's a challenging question. And my instinctive & defensive "Well, I do really like seafood.." wasn't going to do the trick. The 'you' in question isn't just me, it's (presumably) consumers in the global North. So I decided to approach it through the lens of edible insects: If we all 'know' insects area more sustainable protein source, what's stopping us from embracing them and eating less meat as a result?
I'll summarize my talk at the end of this post, but firstly, here are the messages from my fellow panelists, each of whom approached it from their area of expertise..
I spoke about how sustainability is co-opted by a lot of advertising despite no one being entirely sure what it really means. Sustainable for how long? Somewhere between tomorrow and the end of the world, presumably, but where that line is drawn is a matter of debate, or more commonly, convenience.
The above quote from Ben Reade is great because it highlights this as well as the now-ubiquitous claim that insects are 'more sustainable' than their animal-protein counterparts. There really isn't enough evidence to suggest this. And as the pictures above show - on the left, locally sourced bee larvae ceviche in homemade vinegarette, on the right, a muffin made with farmed mealworm flour - not all insect foods are alike in terms of their energy use and carbon footprint.
And surely a key part of sustainability is socio-economic sustainability for the producers of food?
This is a tricky one and can't be put into numbers as easily as greenhouse gas emissions, but I don't think that makes it any less important. Truly sustainable foods should also support fair livelihoods, social mobility and (I'm probably going too communist for some here, but I'm ok with that actually, especially after spending 12 months in West Africa) redistribution of wealth.
I also spoke about how cultural inertia and the constraints of a fairly restrictive buying environment make it hard for even the most motivated people to make dietary changes. When doing so, we may be further misled by the information available to us, since a food described by marketing campaigns as 'sustainable' may have any number of hidden unsustainable consequences.
We were lucky to have a brilliant audience with lots of great questions and thoughts for discussion, and we all agreed that next time we'd like a bit longer to discuss the issues being raised. What can we do as individuals to make our diets more sustainable? Eat more plants, be open to new tastes and textures in our food and drink, and think carefully about the implications of how we're spending our money. What can policy-makers do? Create a buying environment in which sustainable foods are more accessible and more affordable, whilst giving less (or no) advertising space to unhealthy, unsustainable options.