By Nilang Gor
The world is spinning in the wrong direction. According to the UN, hunger has spiked during the pandemic, leaving up to 811 million people undernourished. More than two billion human beings still don’t have access to clean drinking water. Meanwhile, wealthy nations use a significant portion of freshwater for meat and dairy. For example, the average California resident consumes 1500 gallons of water per day. 50% of this water is associated with consumption of animal proteins.
The environment is suffering, too. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation. Three-quarters of Amazon rainforest destruction in Brazil is associated with animal agriculture. In the United States, 41 million tons of plant protein is being used to produce 7 million tons of animal proteins. Yet if we used our land more efficiently, i.e. if crops were grown directly to feed human beings instead of producing feed for livestock, and if westerners changed to 50% plant-based diets, the U.S. alone could solve world hunger. Right now.
So how can we quickly move towards a plant-based food system? How do we solve hunger and food insecurity while healing marginalized communities that have fallen victim to the economic and environmental injustices caused by industrial agriculture? These are complex questions. The simple answer is that where we end up depends on where we start.
Rather than feeling helpless, each one of us has a responsibility and the potential to change our institutions to be more responsible stewards of our global resources and collective health. But we must act, and we must interact, and we must start now.
Despite global awareness of climate change and massive investments made in electric vehicles and alternative energy, most American cities have failed to address the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with industrial food production. With few exceptions, production-based GHG inventory accounts for emissions generated from the goods and services produced only within city limits. Yet most food is produced outside of cities. Therefore, emissions are never included in production-based GHG inventory.
On the other hand, consumption-based GHG inventory accounts for import-export trading and measures emissions throughout the life cycles of consumed goods and services within a city. For example, if 1kg of imported or locally produced beef is consumed by city residents, the consumption-based GHG inventory will include its emissions across the supply chain–including manufacturing, transportation and retail. It is, therefore, crucial to educate our city councils on this gap of GHG accounting, along with a recommendation to recognize consumption-based GHG emissions.
The livestock industry is one of the biggest destructors of our planet’s environment and natural resources. Yet very few programs have been developed to establish sustainable food systems. Why? The meat industry is also one of the major lobbyists in the United States. This allows them to influence the shape of federal programs and regulations. This leaves local governments, most notably cities, with an oversized role to play. Our local leaders must become advocates for replacing meat and dairy consumption with sustainable plant-based options.
Recognizing this, Cultivate Empathy For All, or CEA, has developed a toolkit for working with city councils in particular. We teach our so-called Empathy Educators seven principles for engaging with local government leaders: Empathy, Listening, Patience, Persistence, Relationship-Building, Research and Collaboration. These aren’t just buzzwords but time-tested principles of an approach that is already yielding results.
For example, a group of Los Gatos, California activists called “Plant-based Advocates” has been working closely with their town council to promote the adoption of plant-based diets. The group meets regularly with council members in-person and via Zoom, at the same time lending their support to other community groups. Plant-based Advocates has mobilized the community to speak at council meetings and send emails in support of their initiatives.
Two years ago, their efforts paid off when Los Gatos passed a “Green Monday” resolution that provides for sustainable food educational programs, including a plant-based cooking class. The organization is now working hard to integrate an expanded plan into the town’s 2040 general plan for future growth and development.
CEA has also developed a general plan of its own, called Vision 2025. It’s designed for city residents who are passionate about passing sustainable food regulations that promote a healed environment, sustainability, social equality, community health and animal rights. Vision 2025 acknowledges that apathy, greed and selfishness are the root causes behind our social and environmental deterioration and that these ills must be addressed locally through engagement and empathy. CEA also recognizes the existence of species-ism, meaning that most of us are unable to comprehend “One Health”–the concept that human health, the health of our environment, and animal health are all deeply interconnected.
Indeed, the policies outlined by Vision 2025 are all crafted in a way to help policymakers cultivate systems-thinking by recognizing the interconnected nature of our ecosystem. This marks an effective next step for progressive communities that have already passed plant-based policies and reflects CEA’s belief that advocacy is a continuous journey. During the process of local policymaking, many people are educated along the way, including council members, their policy aides and city staff. Therefore, even if a proposed policy does not get passed, advocacy will raise awareness that paves the way for future plant-based policies.
In March of 2021, Berkeley, California, became the first city in the United States to adopt Vision 2025 for Sustainable Food Policies. By signing on to the new policy, Berkeley has committed to replacing 50 percent of the city’s animal-based food purchasing with plant-based alternatives. The city has also agreed to designate an advisory body that will propose sustainable food policies to the Berkeley City Council going forward.
As nearly 8 in 10 Americans now live in urban environments, these local victories are not just important but essential. If most U.S. cities were like Los Gatos and Berkeley, we’d be well on our way to sustainability, environmental equity and food security for all. Empathy Educators are not only advocating for institutional change, they are creating both a path and a vision for protecting our beautiful planet!
Nilang Gor is a senior scientist in the field of genetic disorders. He holds an M.S. in Cellular and Molecular Biology. Nilang also founded Cultivate Empathy for All, an organization which promotes empathy as a tool to establish a sustainable food system across the United States.