“If we continue to eat like we do today we will destroy the planet”
To tackle climate change, we must eat less meat and more plant-based foods. But what really makes people change their diets? This is something that Armando Perez-Cueto, professor in Food, Nutrition and Culinary Sciences, studies.
Text: Elin Andersson
Today 800 million people in the world go to bed hungry – yet we still give food to animals. We could end world hunger if we just ate less meat.
After Armando Perez-Cueto’s daughter was born, he was shocked when he realised how bad the climate crisis really was. He wanted to contribute to a more sustainable future, and this driving force matched his professional interests as a professor at the Department of Food, Nutrition and Culinary Science at Umeå University very well.
“I understood that if I want my daughter to have a liveable life, I must help the world to become a more sustainable place.” Says Armando Perez-Cueto. “One easy way to do that as an individual is to eat more plant-based food, and in my family, we now eat plant-based ourselves. It is very clear, all research points to this, that food from animals have a very large carbon footprint. And in my research, I want to investigate further what can be done to make people eat more plant-based.”
Armando Perez-Cueto, professor in Food, Nutrition and Culinary Sciences, Umeå University.
From the beginning of his career, Armando Perez-Cueto has worked with food, nutrition, and health.
“I was employed within the public sector in Bolivia, and with The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) I promoted small scale processing of fruits and vegetables in the Amazonas. I later moved to Belgium to get my post-graduate degrees, and my studies there opened my mind to issues regarding food and nutrition dynamics on population level. Because, when it comes to nutrition, people don't really follow recommendations - especially when it comes to recommendations about fruits and vegetables! So, if you want to people to change their diets, you must use other tools then recommendations. Via surveys, I have learnt more about the people that changed their diets and lifestyles. I later moved on to Denmark, first as associate professor at Aalborg University and later at Copenhagen University. In Denmark I focused even more on understanding the dynamics of healthy and sustainable eating on population level.”
Challenge lay beliefs about plant-based food
To be able to eat more plant-based food, plant-based goods must of course be easily available and affordable. But Armando Perez-Cueto argues that this alone is not enough to make people shift their diets.
Meat is also connected to masculinity – a real man should eat meat. This is of course nonsense.
“The supply of plant-based goods grows, and the prices are becoming more and more affordable. We also have many dietary recommendations that point out that we must eat a more plant-based diet. But this is not enough, I think that to really make a change we need to overcome the many lay beliefs that control our diets. One such belief is that eating meat is traditionally part of our culture. This is not true. If we look back just two generations, we can see that people only ate a fraction of the amount of meat we eat today. Another lay belief is about soy. Some argue that we should not eat soy, because Latin American rainforests are being cut down to grow it. But then you must remember that the soy grown in Latin America is not used to produce soy milk or tofu or other vegan products, but to feed the animals that give us milk and meat. So, the way to stop the growth of these large soy fields is to stop eating meat!”
The soy grown in Latin America is not used to produce tofu or other vegan products, but to feed the animals that give us milk and meat. So, the way to stop the growth of large soy fields is to stop eating meat!
“Meat is also connected to masculinity – a real man should eat meat. This is of course nonsense.” Says Armando Perez-Cueto. “In my field of research, men can easily be seen as the black sheep. Through many studies, it is well known that men are less likely to alter their ways in order to live more sustainable for example. But I think that men must be allowed to be part of the solution to create a sustainable society, and I think we can overcome these lay beliefs with the right evidence.”
The industry already started to change
Armando Perez-Cueto has noticed how large companies within the food processing industry have shown an increasing interest towards plant-based nutrition.
“The big companies know that a change towards more plant-based nutrition is coming, and that they need to make a radical shift. In the last decade we can see how the different industries have been investing heavily in alternative products, and now a lot of vegan and vegetarian brands are owned by large food companies. There is also a lot of research conducted on how to produce plant-based protein, even more research is done on the sensory characteristics of plant-based foods. This is good, because we must make plant-based food more attractive, make it tasty!”
"There is a lot of research conducted on how to produce plant-based protein, even more research is done on the sensory characteristics of plant-based foods" says Armando Perez-Cueto. “This is good, because we must make plant-based food more attractive, make it tasty!”
Hoping for more solidarity
When asked what he thinks a regular diet will look like in 50 years, Armando Perez-Cueto answers without hesitation.
“We will eat plant-based! I am sure of it, because if we continue to eat like we do today we will destroy the planet, and won’t be there in 50 years time. We can either make the change now, in a controlled way, or we can be forced to change because we will not have enough water and food. And to change to a plant-based diet is not a negative development, but a way to both live healthier and to save the planet.”
We can either make the change now, in a controlled way, or we can be forced to change because we will not have enough water and food.
In the coming years, Armando Perez-Cueto will continue his research to further understand the social shift towards more plant-based eating. He is also a part of a European project about fermented food, HealthFerm, that will produce robust knowledge on the role that fermenting plants can play in a more sustainable food system.
“Eating plant-based food is a question of solidarity towards other people. Already today we are rationing water for humans, and at the same time we give water to the animals. Today 800 million people in the world go to bed hungry – yet we still give food to animals. We could end world hunger if we just ate less meat. It is our responsibility towards the rest of humanity to stop consuming meat and other animal sourced foods in the crazy way we do today! I believe that we can renew and restore instead of stealing, we can regenerate the planet. I can understand that some people feel powerless, but instead of that we can call our governments and industries to account, and we can also do changes as individuals. I want my daughter to live in a world that shows more compassion towards both humans and animals.”