Faces of the Green Transition (XX)

The nutritionist and food technologist presents his fourth book, ‘Your diet can save the planet’, in which he dismantles myths about sustainable eating and encourages changing consumption habits

Aitor Snchez, writer of ‘Your diet can save the planet’.BEATRIZ TAFANER

The world of diets is controversial, changing, and heavily influenced by trends. As a nutritionist, Aitor Sánchez considers food as a concept that goes far beyond aesthetics, and even health. In his latest book, Your diet can save the planet, puts on the table the impact that human beings can generate in an act as everyday as eating. Thus, it addresses issues such as the misunderstanding towards sustainable nutrition models such as vegetarian or vegan, the food crisis that is to come and how to solve it.

He is the author of other works such as My diet is limping Name with which he also baptized his blog of scientific dissemination that he has been updating since 2011. He meets with EL MUNDO through Zoom, in an interview in which he analyzes topics such as the current environmental situation, the overexploitation of farms and oceans or the disastrous consequences that will not modify our life habits.

What is the stigma around sustainable diets? Do you think it is due to conservatism or because it is not interesting to change habits?
A little of everything is put together, it must be borne in mind that this type of food is usually not very normative. That is, as a gastronomic culture it is perceived as exotic or rare. Also, sometimes changes in diet or activism are labeled as a fad, that interpretation is indeed conservative. Keep in mind that it also shakes the the status quo and the conventions of society: that a person comes to act in a different way removes us internally, and many people feel attacked by indicating that they are not doing things quite right.
One of the problems with these diets is their cost, meat substitute products, labeled as bio or ecological, they are much more expensive. There are large families that will continue to choose more steaks at a lower price, how can this be solved?
It is important to point out this limitation and get to the root of the matter. Eating sustainable does not have to be expensive, unless we go for meat substitutes, exotic products or gourmet. Basing the diet on raw materials does not give problems, there is cheap vegetable protein: chickpeas, beans, lentils or products such as falafel, hummus. This sometimes collides with the statistics, what goes up the most in the Spanish shopping basket is meat and fish, which means that going towards a sustainable model should be cheaper.
. What alternatives are there to change production systems? Well, as happened with the mining company, the end of a productive activity should offer employment alternatives. What would that transition be like?
We have already faced transitions of this style, one of the largest was the end of the slave model. It was believed that it was impossible to advance without slaves and production systems seemed to be collapsing. Indeed, it is not an approach that can be carried out from one day to the next, it will be necessary to plan a progressive model. Arguments are heard arguing that if everyone were vegan there would be no surface land to cultivate, when in reality it is a paradox. What is taking 70% of the agricultural area is the livestock itself: planting grains and pastures for the animals. It is not such a complicated challenge, there will be areas of the world where it is complex, but it is not the areas that generate the problem. The grazing of Mal, Ghana or Burkina Faso, with these small subsistence farmers, does not pose a great impact on the environment. What has to change are the macro farms.
If bad practices on farms are invisible, you claim that they are even more so on fish farms and oceans, why do we believe that their resources are inexhaustible?
The exploitation of the sea has become romanticized. Fishing and fish gastronomy have gained much importance, in recent years it has become the most valued product in the hospitality industry. We seemed to be pulling at it as if it would never end. We have reached the limit, the vast majority of commercial species have been threatened. If these consumption lines continue until 2030, the vast majority of consumption species will be under threat of disappearance and many fishing models will have to be changed. We fish a lot, where we shouldn’t and aggressively. It seems that the sector is not willing to give the seas that respite and that we have the opportunity, FAO says it very clearly: the sea has a very high capacity for regeneration, but we are not giving it the time to do so.
He highlights in his book all the effort that goes into keeping animals to end up eating them. Would it be better to consume animal products without killing them?
Of course, when we go to products of animal origin, such as eggs and dairy, we see that their production is not so polluting. Having a poultry farm still has a lot of environmental impact, just like a dairy farm, but you get more out of the same animal. When you kill a calf, you get kilos of meat, but if you prey that same cow and start to extract the milk, the yield is higher.
The whole of society participates in the waste of food, from the transporter to the consumer. How can food waste be reduced?
. It is surely the most complicated part, because it involves the consumer model and large stores will have to change the chip. With the packaging it is simpler, the producers may notice that the consumers reject goods that carry a lot of plastic. Anyway, you have to start at home, which is where more than 40% of food is wasted … It would also be advisable to buy in producer markets to make supermarkets rethink certain issues.
You are in favor of ‘local and seasonal’ markets, does that mean that you defend each region or country to consume its own products?
It will be the right thing to do. Whenever we repeat the ‘local and seasonal’ mantra, we do it to restrict emissions: buy things from here because bringing them from New Zealand is going to be more polluting. When it really has other important readings, such as having a circular economy, maintaining an agricultural fabric that will feed back to the nearest region and that if we buy national products we are avoiding that there is so much product that comes from places where companies are delocalized.
Why is the tag automatically associated? bio with something good and transgenic with something bad?
Probably because of all the information we have read about it. There are also logical questions, if as a consumer you go to a supermarket and find a product bio With a European certified label, we understandably think it is more sustainable. What fault does the citizen have that their leaders have made a law that does not guarantee what it promises? Consumers of ‘bio’ are actually victims, we are talking about people who are willing to pay more for the good of everyone. What needs to be done is to change the European legislation so that we have more guarantees. With transgenics a lot of noise has been generated, it has been an ideological battlefield between very important people against them, as if they were the devil, and others defending them as the solution to hunger in the world. The planet’s food problem is not one of production, it is one of distribution.
If this situation continues, what will the food crisis you speak of be like?
It will not be a shortage crisis as we might imagine, it will be about supply problems as a consequence of the climate crisis. Very violent consequences are beginning to be seen in different parts of the world and this generates food insecurity, especially in vulnerable communities. Therefore, this crisis is not based on anecdotes like the disappearance of bananas in 2030, that would be the least of our problems. The setbacks will be environmental problems that will arise sporadically, and unpredictably, and will converge in food and migration crises. We are not prepared for the large populations that are going to move. Lo Ceuta and Melilla is going to be nothing, compared to the next 20 years.
I am struck by the fact that one of the proposals to avoid global warming is not having children when we are in a society with low birth rates and that could have serious economic repercussions.
. I do not think that the advice to combat climate change is not to have children, it is an appreciation to raise awareness about the impact that human beings have on the planet. Bringing another human being will be harmful to the environment. Although the solution will not go out there, I do not think the problem is that we are 7,000 million human beings, the problem is that we are 7,000 million living as we live, eating so much meat, with a car and wasting energy. Perhaps the solution is not to control the number of inhabitants but the model of life.
He states that it is much better to reuse or recycle plastic than to buy sustainable alternatives that end up generating more impact.
It generates more impact `because you are demanding new goods. I think people do it because it is a kind of ritual; think “I’m going to start my new sustainable life” or want to have a sustainable gesture with someone. A cloth or cotton bag has more impact than 70 plastic bags. To amortize a cotton bag you have to give it between 700 or 1,000 uses, we forget that plastic has a utility. The most important thing at an environmental level is the R: reuse.
One of the great excuses is “what can I change by myself?”, However, you argue that individual action is useful to change this collective problem.
Yes, because an individual act is never limited to the personal sphere, what a person does ends up having an impact on a group, at work, on a project, on the family or on their partner. In addition, small gestures generate a change in demand, companies notice it and make changes. Right now they advertise vegan burgers and there is a soy drink in any supermarket. You could think that those people who drink vegetable drinks would not change anything and now even the dairy industry itself has a section on vegetable drinks.
How far should sustainable changes go? Should it be something personal or does it concern legislators?
I think there is a part that concerns the individual at the level of personal choices, but there are responsibilities that dot governments, administrations and companies. Many times, starting from a conventional diet paradigm, we believe that nothing is being imposed. Right now there are hospitals that are offering meat on a daily basis and nobody wonders if they are imposing it on us; But if the government decides that meat is not served in the dining rooms on Mondays, it will look like they are forcing us to vegetarianism. It seems that changing what already exists is imposing, but it is not thought that what already exists is being imposed on us.
Do you think there is hope?
Yes, because it converges with other concerns. If a sustainable diet were incompatible with health, it would have no future, but there are certain elements of sustainability that have an outlet and food is one of them. Although we cannot continue procrastinating the issue, because a day will come when we will not have more room for maneuver in the face of the emergency of the situation.

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