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For those of us with plenty of food, should high-emissions meals still be considered a ‘personal choice’? 

Last month I had the honour of presenting to a receptive and knowledgeable audience at City University of London’s Centre for Food Policy Food Thinkers event.  In the Q & A, one commenter – who represented Bags of Taste, a non-profit organization offering assistance and education to people who are food-insecure – made some intriguing comments that I'd like to expand on here.

Agreed: Food waste should be a top priority

Reducing food waste should be a top priority, as the commenter agreed. Their organization has found that by doing so, their clients realize such significant savings that it’s a “major driver of them continuing with the dietary behaviour change” encouraged by Bags of Taste.  

That amplifies a theme in my recent book, which looked at food-system overhaul in World War II Britain and what we can learn from it today. Reducing food waste helped provide better diets for poorer Britons, and today could similarly help achieve food justice while lowering greenhouse gas emissions. 

For those who have choice, should personal choice be sancrosanct?

This commenter also spoke of the need to be respectful of personal decision-making, particularly among those who have limited choice. As my book Mobilize Food! makes clear, my call to eat less meat and prioritize healthy plant foods is not aimed at those who have limited choice in affordable protein sources, or at the small percentage of citizens in wealthy countries who don’t get enough protein (in Canada, this is considerably less than 5%).  

My message is primarily aimed at: 

  • those of us who have considerable scope for choice in what to eat, which is most of us in industrialized countries, and who are among the approximately 97% of people in nations like Canada who don’t consume nutritional minimums for dietary fibre — which only comes from plants.       
  • all of us who can save money by trimming food waste and also by learning new skills to make appealing plant-based meals more efficient, affordable, and tasty.
  • governments at all levels who affect our food choices by choosing what to subsidize, what products and behaviours to promote, and what research to fund. 
  • anyone who wonders how they can take meaningful action on climate today, without waiting for new laws or corporate action – starting with their next meal.

But how far should we take the argument that 'personal choice' must be sacrosanct?  We already get told what to eat every day, all day by corporations through advertising. The endless drumbeat of profit-driven messages — More meat and cheese is always better! Have another sugary drink or salty, sugary, greasy snack! — help create a food culture that is more self-destructive than sustainable.  

Sugar-coating not necessary: With the straight goods, we can make better choices

If I thought my physician or other healthcare provider were obscuring challenging truths about my health options so that I never need question my choices – thus undermining my ability to make better choices -- I’d feel disrespected. And I think most people would agree. In the same vein, I believe that the most respectful way to approach discussions about food, food justice, and climate is to assume people are as ready and equipped for truth about the positive health and planetary implications of a diet that’s more plant- and less meat-based as they are for tips on the gains we all realize by reducing food waste.  

Climate-aware physicians recognize connections between personal and planetary health

On October 28, I presented to a national climate conference for doctors, nurses, and additional medical experts. We discussed how they could bring food issues into their practice and their advocacy, including potentially talking with patients about food choices and their implications for personal and planetary health – while meeting patients where they’re at on these topics. Many patients would welcome interest and guidance from doctors on food and health. According to one physician who wrote recently, when she started asking patients what and how they eat, some thanked her and one said:  "No doctor has ever asked me that before!"

Personal choice should be respected, but for those with mountains of choice, it should sometimes be challenged as well. Comments welcome! 

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