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A coalition of UK health professionals has called for a carbon tax to be imposed on food with a heavy environmental impact, like meat, by 2025, unless the industry takes voluntary action on the impact of their goods.

In its new report, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) says that the climate crisis cannot be solved without action to cut the consumption of food that causes high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, such as meat and dairy products. It adds that more sustainable diets are healthier and would reduce illness. 

The UKHACC includes 10 Royal Colleges of medicine and nursing, the British Medical Association and the Lancet, representing doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

The report makes a series of recommendations, including calling for public information campaigns on diet to include climate messages, and putting labels on food to reveal its environmental impact. 

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Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, says that the latter recommendation is especially important. He says, “Today you can walk into a shop and buy something with an environmental impact many times higher than another food, and have no idea you have done so. For example, Brazilian beef uses 200 times more land and causes 80 times more emissions than European tofu.”

More importantly, the coalition says that we need to rethink the food system. Kristin Bash, who leads the Faculty of Public Health’s food group and is a co-author of the UKHACC report, says, “the climate crisis isn’t something we should see as far in the future. It’s time to take these issues seriously now.”

Additionally, the report calls for the UK government to levy a food carbon tax on all food producers if the industry does not take action by 2025 to reduce the environmental impact of its products, such as meat. Nicky Philpott, the director of UKHACC, said taxes on plastic bags and sugary soft drinks show that such policies can reduce harmful activities. 

Already, the NHS has set a target of cutting its net carbon emissions to zero by 2040 and included food in its action plan, saying that “healthier, locally sourced food can improve wellbeing while cutting emissions,” however the UKHACC believes that “the Government must do more to encourage, enable and support these changes.” 

Food production is responsible for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and studies have shown that red meat and dairy are more harmful than plant-based food. 

Bash clarifies that the report is not telling people to become vegans. “It’s just saying increase your consumption of plant protein. It’s a simple message and something that’s widely supported by health organisations around the world.” 

A Greenpeace study in Hong Kong has found that nearly one-third of the city’s supply of beef comes from Brazilian ranches located in deforested areas of the Amazon rainforest.

The survey, conducted in August, found that imported beef from Marfrig, JBS and Minerva Foods, meat packers that represent nearly half of the cattle slaughtered in the Amazon, is being sold in at least one major supermarket chain in Hong Kong. 

Frances Yeung Hoi-shan, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace, says to the South China Morning Post, “Some of the supply chains are like ‘beef laundering’. The smaller ranchers that farm on destroyed Amazon forest land sell to other ranchers, who then sell to larger farms, before it ends up with consumers. This means beef from ranches on destroyed forest land is mixed in with beef from other farms that are not on deforested areas.”

Hong Kong and China are the top two destinations for Brazilian beef, according to the US Department of Agriculture. In 2017, Hong Kong imported 780 000 tons of frozen beef and offal, of which 53% came from Brazil. 60% of this beef in Brazil came from the three meat packers, which is how Greenpeace arrived at its figure of 30% of beef consumed by Hong Kongers coming from these three companies.

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Cattle ranchers, loggers and farmers in Brazil often set fire to the Amazon rainforest to clear land for their activities. The pace of deforestation has increased rapidly since President Jair Bolsonaro came into power. He says that farming and mining in the forest is the only way to lift the country out of poverty.

The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported that 796 square kilometers of forest were cut down during the first three months of this year. A third of the devastation happened on land including national forests and conservation areas, which in general have become targets for land grabbers eager for big profits. According to the Institute, reports of deforestation were up 51% between January and March as compared to 2019.

According to the SCMP, while Yata and City’super responded to Greenpeace saying that they “rarely” sold Brazilian beef, ParknShop, one of the biggest supermarket chains in the city, said it sourced a “small portion” of beef from JBS and would switch to other suppliers once its current stock had sold out.

Hong Kong is already being affected by the climate crisis, seen in reports that this summer was the hottest since records began in 1884. The number of “very hot days” recorded this year has already reached 43, 32.8 days above the annual norm.

As the climate crisis reaches critical tipping points and is spurring many people to abandon meat products, which are extremely resource-intensive and environmentally-damaging to produce, entomophagy may be a sound alternative to those who are not quite ready to let go of meat. 

What is Entomophagy?

Entomophagy is the eating of insects and is being hailed as a novel solution to ensure sustainable food production. For good reason, too- insects are incredibly easy to raise due to their fast reproduction rates. They are also incredibly high in protein- certain insects, such as caterpillars, have been shown to have as much as 35.2 grams of protein per 100 grams of edible portion, as compared to 20.6 g and 19.9 g for beef and chicken respectively. 

The production of edible insects is also less environmentally damaging. Production of animal meat for human consumption is extremely resource-intensive; the production of 1 gram of protein from chicken requires two to three times as much land and 50% more water than the production of mealworms. Production of beef, on the other hand, requires up to 14 times as much land and 5 times as much water than the production of mealworms. 

Perhaps the biggest benefit of producing edible insects for human consumption is that they can be raised on food waste. Edible insect production entails producing and culturing food from discarded food waste. A farm in Singapore is raising black soldier fly larvae on discarded food waste alone. A startup in Malaysia is also currently raising these larvae for use in burgers and ice cream. It is possible to eat the larvae whole too, and their taste has been likened to that of Fritos

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Raising edible insects on food waste not only eliminates the need for the production of grain necessary to feed livestock such as chicken and cattle, which consume vast amounts of arable land, but also naturally tackles the problem of food waste, which is not being sufficiently addressed despite concerns about a global food shortage. A third of food intended for consumption is wasted or lost every year and the problem also damages the environment, contributing about 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd-largest contributor of carbon emissions, after the US and China.

Carbon emissions from meat production and food waste can be mitigated by rearing edible insects. Livestock production accounts for 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with beef having the highest footprint due to the large amounts of methane that an average cow produces. Methane is a greenhouse gas roughly 25 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide; cattle can produce 250-500 litres of methane a day. Conversely, insect farming produces about 100 times less greenhouse gases per kg of mass organism gain. Despite the environmental benefits, encouraging the switch towards entomophagy, and therefore mass edible insect production, comes with its unique set of challenges. 

Challenges of Adopting Entomophagy 

Insects are not the most aesthetically appealing delicacy to many people in Western countries. However, they are widely eaten in many countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, and can be prepared in numerous ways. Those who find insects unappetising need not eat the insect whole. Cookies made from cricket flour are widely available, as is pasta made from grasshopper flour. Mealworm burgers are also widely sold in supermarkets in Switzerland and mealworm meatballs will soon be on the menus of Ikea cafes. With all these insect-based foods inconspicuously blended into everyday foods, encouraging the switch towards entomophagy has never been easier. 

Perceptions of eating insects also poses a challenge. Seafood are organisms that are closely related to insects. Shrimp, prawns and lobsters belong to the same phylum as insects, and they are collectively known as arthropods; the multiple appendages, exoskeletons and feelers of shrimp, prawns and lobsters resemble that of crickets and locusts. In fact, shrimp is termed the ‘cockroaches of the sea’. 

Encouraging entomophagy merely requires a shift in perceptions towards insects as food. Sushi is now arguably one of the most widely-known foods in Western countries, after being seen as ‘radical’ in the 1970s and 1980s. Another shift in the attitude towards foods is the rising popularity of veganism. Veganism was, until recently, viewed as an eccentric lifestyle choice, with cases of vegans being the target of discrimination and bias. In light of increasing public awareness of the environmental and health implications posed by the meat industry however, more people are adopting vegan diets and the increasing number of vegan options available, such as the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat Burger, has made this switch easier. 

While it is more important to reduce levels of greenhouse gases through a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, entomophagy is a viable (albeit novel) solution in shifting people’s perception of what constitutes a healthy diet: one that provides sufficient nutrition, but also has little negative impact on the environment. With the global population rising exponentially, it is vital that the world adopts such eating habits to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. 

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Featured image by: Paul Arps

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