Many years ago in the mid-1990s, when I first started working in Berlin, Germany, we went for dinner as a group and one of my English colleagues tried to order a vegetarian dish at a nearby restaurant.
It was quite funny as the translated request from a grinning German colleague was first met with shock and disbelief; the waitress thought a bunch of foreigners were making a silly joke.
Finally, a little flustered, she said she can offer a bratwurst with some extra sauerkraut. My colleague insisted on ordering only the sauerkraut – but when it came, it had bits of chopped ham in it.
This old situation should now be contrasted with modern Berlin today, which is now considered one of the most vegan-friendly cities in Europe.
Practically every restaurant I went to recently had vegetarian or vegan options, and many of them were excellent. The Germans have a well-deserved reputation for being socially and environmentally savvy and the latest proposal is to raise the tax on meat, particularly beef, from 7% to 19% – this proposal is being taken very seriously by parliament.
So, a country that had every citizen eating an average of 80 kilos of meat a year 30 years ago is now looking to reduce meat consumption down to 30-35 kilos by 2040 (it is currently under 60 kilos a year).
Note that this is the country which had banned tofu up to 1990. There are now even vegan Christmas markets in Germany, a fact which would have made our waitress in 1995 swoon in shock.
Directly, whether you like it or not, the huge fires engulfing the largest pristine rainforests left in the world in the Amazon are caused by human demand for meat. Land is needed to raise the livestock to satisfy global demand for meat (particularly beef) and this simply means destroying millions of hectares of the Amazon jungle to clear them for grazing land.
It also provides more land needed for planting crops used to feed cattle and other animals. In case there are any doubters, it is impossible for a tropical rainforest to catch fire by itself so the 72,843 fires there this year were deliberately started by humans looking to clear land.
In terms of destruction, the estimated area destroyed is around 259,000 square kilometres and rising. This is TWICE the size of Peninsular Malaysia which covers 131,587 square kilometres.
The irony of it all
The irony is the devastating tactics such as those applied in the Amazon currently is almost certain to destroy the meat industry itself eventually. The short-term gain in meat production will not be met by long-term increase in meat consumption. Let me explain.
Our planet is already at an inflection point. Either humans can continue to destroy our environment and certainly make our planet uninhabitable within the next few decades or centuries, or humans can decide to reverse course and change the practices and habits which are devastating to our world.
Climate change is not a vague peculiarity which can be ignored, despite what vested-interests media keep telling us. We are living through a period of very high sensitivity to climate-altering factors and it would be insane to ignore it. For more, please read my previous article Facing up to climate change .
The future of food
The actions of Germany and other Scandinavian countries are the start of a movement that recognises that our current food habits are unsustainable long-term, generally unhealthy, and simply need to change.
Despite modern medical advances which can sustain human longevity to record levels in most parts of the world, it is much less often mentioned by medical journals or the press that there is little point in living such long lives if one is always sick and in need of medication and healthcare.
It does not make sense to live in pain as long as possible just to pay vast amounts of money to pharmaceutical companies and medical practitioners.
So it is a matter of time before we all start to seek planet-healthy food which is also healthy for our bodies as well. Diet is the single biggest factor which all of us can control which affects our impact on the environment; our diets have much more influence on the environment than cutting down on using the car, or flying, or switching lights off early.
Eating one burger is roughly the same as driving a normal 1.5-litre petrol car for 750 km in terms of greenhouse gases (GHG). Note cattle produces methane, which is roughly 23 times more potent as a GHG than the carbon dioxide emitted by cars, and producing one kilo of meat can cost up to 1,000 kilos of GHG.
So our food will change, not only because most modern societies will want it, but because sooner or later, the economies of scale will tip towards producing such healthier foods.
In short, it will be cheaper to produce healthy non-meat based food than to raise a cow for beef. The resources needed to produce plant-based food will be less, the environmental footprint will be minimal and importantly, the production costs will be cheaper than for raising meat.
For consumers, one unstated benefit of plant-based foods is that, unlike meat, they do not contaminate kitchen surfaces with dangerous bacteria and they also keep longer in the fridge which helps to significantly reduce waste.
In terms of taste, there are already several extremely good plant-based burgers which most people cannot differentiate from real meat burgers. I have tried quite a few and I actually prefer the taste of some of these plant-based burgers. There is also plant-based “chicken meat” which tastes exactly the same as chicken, according to my daughter who sampled it recently in the US.
Beyond this, if human palates adapt just a little, then it is highly feasible that we will be dining on new foods and flavours created from algae, insects, plankton, fungi, etc, which may be introduced into grain or bean-based staples such as wheat, rice, soy and other beans.
Humans have been conditioned for decades to like sugary, salty, artificially-flavoured and synthetically-textured food. The same techniques can be applied to make non-meat foods palatable and desirable for humans. If it makes commercial sense, then I am certain the food industry can and will re-educate our palates as necessary.
Tracking food of the futureIt is feasible we may track our food consumption much better in the future as we become more aware of its environmental and nutritional impact. At present, some fast food restaurants show the calories in their offerings, but this is mostly a publicity gimmick.
If such establishments genuinely cared for their customers’ health, they would print skull-and-crossbones labels with “DO NOT EAT” against many of their dishes.
In the future, we may have apps on our phones which can determine the carbon footprint of our food, and list its nutritional properties as well. What I always wanted is an app to determine what nutrients are lacking in dishes and keep tracking such deficiencies until they are consumed.
All the above is not at all unlikely, although it is mostly my opinion today. Humans have displayed an unconscionable lack of interest in proper nutrition in the past, resulting in outrageous increases in unnecessary conditions such as obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases.
However, humans have also displayed a remarkable resilience in the face of severe crisis and disasters and it is only a matter of time before we all recognise the disaster facing us. If a burning rainforest twice the size of Peninsular Malaysia is not a global disaster, then I do not know how people should define the word “disaster”.
Therefore, the probability is that the future may herald a wave of changes to our diets, which as mentioned, is the single largest factor every human can control in terms of environmental damage.
The only thing I cannot do is put a date when this change in sentiment towards our food will happen. It may occur within 10 years, or maybe 50, perhaps even later. I only hope it is not too late by then.