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Transcript for Episode 8: Brent Loken on “It’s not so simple”



Matthew   0:05

Welcome to Feed, a food system podcast presented by Table. I’m Matthew Kessler -

Samara  0:11

And I’m Samara Brock, and today we’re joined by Brent Loken, Global food lead scientist at the World Wildlife Fund.

Brent  0:20

Food gives us that amazing agency to be able to create change, to be able to impact climate change, to be able to reduce the amount of biodiversity which is lost and feel great. It does give us power.

Matthew   0:32

Brent has been working at the intersections of food systems, human and planetary health. Brent previously worked on the EAT Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. And at the end of 2020, Brent was the primary author on the WWF report Bending the curve, the restorative power of a planet based diet.

Samara  0:50

In our conversation, Brent warns against investing too much in one solution. He highlights that most decisions come with tradeoffs. You will hear him say “it is not so simple” more than a few times. He emphasizes the need for multi-level action and a whole basket of solutions to improve global food security and nutrition while staying within planetary boundaries.

Matthew   1:12

We first asked Brent what were some early experiences that grew his interest in working with food systems.

Brent   1:20

I would say that I didn't have a very clear path. You know, there wasn't a point A to point B, I've had a pretty eclectic work history. I started out working in international schools. So the physics and chemistry teacher that led me to building a school actually, that it ran, and the idea of working on this international school and building out was to transform education that ultimately led me to the rain forest to Borneo, where I started an NGO to save orangutans and work with local diet communities on how do you best implement conservation agriculture? Or how do you best protect these iconic species through different forms of work and economic development and others? You know, what I found from my time in Borneo is, although I wanted to talk about orangutans, and clouded leopard and saving forests, what they wanted to talk about was health and jobs and the loss of like their food, culture and all these other issues. And I quickly came to realize that I might be able to achieve the same conservation outcomes by talking about food, instead of directly talking about orangutans. So that led me to eat, where I worked for, geez, I think it was four years for four or five years. And ultimately, from that experience, I jumped to WWF. Because I realized and felt like what we need at this point is a global organization that's in so many parts of the world that's able to amplify and really accelerate these massive global problems. And that's something that WWF can actually do. And what is also needed was this downscaling of these global solutions and targets down to the national level, you know, what does it mean to an individual community? What does it mean to a person? What does it mean to a country that really lies at the at the heart of this report? It's taking those global targets that we know of, within the eat Lancet that many people have worked on downscaling it and trying to make sense of those at the national level?

Matthew 3:11

Yeah, that's really interesting. And we will dive into the big picture and the micro scale. How was the food culture changing in Borneo? What was the food culture trying to be brought back to? To what state? Because it's an interesting question about traditions.

Brent  3:25

The Dayak have an extremely fascinating food culture that I didn't understand when I first worked. But what I started to realize is that it lies at the heart of all this their ceremonies. And also conservation as well, you know, they practiced form of swidden agriculture, where they would cut down a small plot of land every single year, they would grow rice on that land, and then they would move on to like another plot of land. So they were never clearing large areas of forest. And every family had their own plot of vegetables and fruits, and they raised chickens and pigs and other things. And everybody raised enough food for them to eat. And central to a lot of their ceremonies was rice. And this culture of rice. And this, this community building nature of rice and harvesting the rice together and planting it together was very central. And that was being lost. Because what individual Dayak people were doing is they were selling their small little plots of land to palm oil companies. And they were saying, Well, I don't need to grow my food anymore, I can just buy it from the market. But what they're finding is that when they went to the market to buy the food is it was extremely expensive to buy the same fruits and vegetables and things that they used to grow. So instead of buying those healthy foods, they were instead buying ramen noodles, and pastries and cakes and the cheaper foods. So there. So you could definitely see a huge health impact by replacing those healthy foods with the more processed foods. And they were losing these traditional connections back to the food that they were growing. And because they were central to all of the ceremonies that they held. by losing that connection, they were also losing that tied to these ceremonies, which was part of their culture. So we worked with them quite a bit in terms of how do we actually maintain that? What does it actually mean for them what parts you want to maintain? But it was a it was a it was a surprise to me to see that that food directly linked not only with conservation, but also linked with the cultural values of that community itself.

Samara  5:15

So now that you're working, you said that you work at WWF because you wanted to work at a larger scale. Do you worry that some of that particular clarity about situations like you encountered there might be lost in looking at this global scale?

Brent   5:32

Yes and no. You know, one of the tricky things though, that I found working in Borneo was just how complex it was to work with a particular community to save this particular forest. Right it took a lot of time and effort. You know, I spent five years there living with the Dayak researching their culture, researching the forest and the biodiversity of the forest. And I quickly came to realize that if we were to scale this up and do it in communities like this, you know, all over the planet, I don't know how we'd have the capacity to be able to do this, you know, so at one level, I think we need to figure out how do we work and support local communities, but at the same time, working at the global scale is probably a bit more efficient, in some ways. Because if you put together the right global mechanisms and the right global frameworks, it then can potentially facilitate down to local communities to support the what is protection of culture, other things. So I think right now, where I'm leaning is more of the working at the global scale helps to actually support some of the local efforts and the people working on the ground.

Samara  6:34

You talk about in the report that this analogy of the global food system being this puzzle where you have to fit all the pieces together. Can you describe some of the big picture issues that you see in the global food system, and what some of the key challenges that you're trying to work on are?

Brent  6:51

Yeah, there are huge problems right now. And at the root of all, these multiple converging crises that we're facing food really lies at the center of all this, you know, we hear so much about the biodiversity crisis, the climate crisis, the ongoing health crisis, you know, and food is really front and center, it's driving so many of those of those issues, you know, and it is true, that the way that we have been actually producing food has had a lot of positive benefits, people are living longer people are more healthy. If you look at infant mortality that's actually gone down. But what we've done is that by making those gains we borrowed from the natural capital of the world, right? And it's that debt that we've accumulated over time, which meant we're now starting to realize and feel the overall effects of, and that's what we have to start to come to terms with. And there has been some interesting work done on let's say that we keep on eating, how we're doing, we keep on producing food, how we're doing. But we respect the planetary boundaries. We respect environmental limits at the earth places upon us how much food can we actually produce. And the estimate is about food for about 3.4 billion people, not 7.5 billion people, but 3.4 billion people. So that's really the carrying capacity that we're operating at, given how we're eating and how we're producing food. So clearly, what we're doing in terms of consumption habits, and how we produce food isn't working, we're exceeding the limits of the earth places upon us. But we need to do is we need to figure out how to produce food for 10 billion people, and do it within those limits. And that's going to include massive changes to how we eat food, how we produce food, and how we waste food.

Matthew  8:24

This figure of 3.4 billion is based on current consumption and food production trends and comes from a 2020 study by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. They suggest that through redistributing cropland, improving water-nutrient management, reducing food waste and changing diets, we can feed up to 10.2 billion people and still remain within planetary boundaries.

Samara  08:46

So what is a planetary diet?

Brent  08:49

A planet based diet. You know, at its heart, it's a diet that is good for people and planet. One that maximizes health benefits and minimizes environmental impact. But I think when we're thinking about diets, we get so caught up on what individual foods we should be eating, how much meat should I be eating, how much fruits and veggies what's good for me what's actually bad for me. And I think it's best to think of diets and more of a theme. It's this idea of, well, well, let's, you know, if we were going to emphasize certain foods, it would be vegetables and fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. And if we're going to drink something, drink water, right. So that's where the emphasis should lie. This can be with or without seafood, with or without dairy, with or without eggs with or without meat. And that is really a planet based diet. It's that diet which emphasizes more of the plant foods, and suddenly, you know, you can eat some meat, but it doesn't emphasize meat as being at the center of the plate. You know, and the reason that we are looking at this diet is there are obvious health benefits, which we could, you know, definitely get into, but the environmental benefits are very, very clear in terms of shifting towards eating more plant-based foods. You know, at the end of the day, the research is pretty clear that how we produce animal source foods is having negative impacts on the world planet. You know right now. Just producing livestock emits about 10% of overall global greenhouse gas emissions. And that's just looking at methane production, it's not looking at the land use impacts, actually coming from that producing livestock uses about 3 billion hectares of land out of 4.1 billion hectares of total agricultural land that we actually use. So that's a huge proportion of the land, which is going to actually use this. Now, current projections going into the future in terms of where we're going with animal source foods, is that by 2030, current trends are saying that we're going to increase consumption of animal source foods by about 12%. So if you look at the already negative impacts, animal source foods is having. This trend of increasing consumption in you know, different parts of the world. That leaves a pretty bleak picture in terms of rising greenhouse gas emissions, impacts on biodiversity, and we're going to have to figure out some way how to come to terms with that and figure out how we can rein that in.

Matthew  10:55

The report is called “Bending the curve, the restorative power of a planet based diet”. So we just talked about what is a planet based diet? Can we talk about what you mean by bending the curve? And how do dietary shifts contribute to that?

Brent  11:08

What we mean, when we're saying bending the curve is we're saying that just stopping exploitation of nature is not enough that we actually have to actively work to restore nature all these degraded lands that we have, we have to work to actually improve the biodiversity and not just saying we're going to stop the loss, you know, where we are. And diets have play a very central role in that in one way, if we shift diets towards more planet based diets, when it ends up happening is a lot of land can actually be freed up, we can use that land for other things like planting trees, restoring nature that has positive greenhouse gas emission impacts, it also reduces the, the overall impact on biodiversity, and we can actually support biodiversity. The other thing is on active crop lands, is we need to figure out how we start to turn crop lands from being just more like monocultures to being lands where we where we can actively integrate nature into crops, you know, so that could mean, you know, maybe setting aside 10% of all crop lands for some kind of biodiversity conservation, so you know, the, that fine line between croplands and nature gets blurred a little bit. And we, you know, we end up painting and having this mosaic of, of working lands that both, you know, make our food and also support biodiversity. And, you know, when we do that together, all of those actions will start to bend that curve where we can actually restore nature.

Samara  12:27

It's interesting, because you're sort of talking about both the land sparing and the land sharing approach, in that you're talking about reducing the amount of land we're using, but also using that land to have a host sort of more diverse forms of agriculture. Do you see a tension in that in trying to achieve both those goals at once?

Brent  12:47

Yeah, no, you know, this is framed as a debate often. Either you need to land spare or you need to land share. And I think that it doesn't need to be framed that way. Because we need both. We need to both spare land, there are certain lands, that there are on this planet that we absolutely need to just set aside. You know, I'm thinking about the tropical rainforests. I'm thinking about my time in Borneo and the time that is spent in the jungle, and just the sheer and amazing, unbelievable biodiversity that comes out of these forests. There's no place like it. When you impact those ecosystems, they're never going to be the same. So some of this land has to be absolutely spared. But we also have to share it, you know, and it's that's a 10% of cropland that I was saying, we actually can take 10% of cropland and actively integrate biodiversity conservation measures into that, you know, and I think that once we start to blur that line between this is agricultural land, this is nature, it's off limits, and figure out how do we integrate those more seamlessly together, then we can actually do both. So  I'm not a big fan of either/or debates fantasy, as you know, it's either this or that, you know, I think that at the end of the day to, you know, to transform the global food system, which is what we have to do. All options need to be looked at.

Matthew  13:58

And in respect to the 10% of cropland that could be brought into more biodiverse landscape. Working from the global scale, there's a lot of political ramifications of where that 10% might come from. in your report, do you point out particular areas or regions or think of different ways that land across nations could be brought into a more biodiverse landscape?

Brent  14:20

No, that's a complex mosaic of land optimization that we're going to have to figure out going forward. Where is the most optimal place to be growing food? What would it look like to actually set aside 10% of land on this? What would that actually do to impact crop yields? If that setting aside 10% of land on these crop lands, reduces crop yields, which actually leads and drives further deforestation somewhere else? Well, that's not going to be a solution. Those are some of the questions that are being worked on right now. But we need much more clarity and granularity in terms of what that looks like at the national level.

Samara  14:56

Do you worry, as many people do about sort of the negative aspects that could arise through trying to arrange land at the scale of the planetary in terms of land grabs, green land grabs - You know, people being dispossessed from their land in the name of biodiversity conservation?

Brent  15:16

Yes. [laughs] Land and how we use land is probably one of the most important issues moving forward. We don't have a lot of land left, you know, so 40%, of all land is used for agriculture, 30% of that is used actually, for livestock. There's not a lot of land left to go around and what we need to do is we need to decrease land use emissions down to zero, that means no further conversion of the natural areas that we have. So that only leaves like a few areas left that we can actually work on and what that looks like moving forward. I don't know, you know, we tend to want to paint things as being Win Win solutions all the time, right? That, you know, if we adopt healthy diets, we're going to be able to protect nature, we're going to be able to improve our health. And at one level, that is true. But at another level, I think we have to do a very open and honest assessment of some of the trade offs because there will potentially be losers in some cases, and how do we had an open and honest conversation about where that may happen? And how do we work to minimize the impacts of some of the difficult transitions that we may have to go through?

Samara  16:22

So thinking about winners and losers and tradeoffs, is it really as simple as a win-win situation for environment and health’? Have you seen tensions where we might have to eat less healthy to have less of an environmental impact?

Brent  16:37

No. The evidence is fairly clear that a planet-based diets are the ones that I described earlier, this theme of emphasizing more fruits and vegetables and nuts and legumes, and more of plant based foods. And yes, you can eat some meat if you want, and you can eat some fish if you want. That that is compatible with both health outcomes. And also with like the Paris climate, if we want to follow that if we want to achieve a 1.5C future. So it is compatible with environmental outcomes as well. You know, but in fact, if we all wanted to eat a lot of sugar. Sugar and a lot of those products, a lot of those highly processed foods have lower environmental impact than even red meat. So that could be a positive win from an environmental standpoint, for but from a health standpoint, it's probably not a future that we actually want, right.

I do find the framing of Win-Win solutions, food can fix it, eat to save the world, helpful at one level, because people like the simple framings. And there's something very nice about a very non nuanced message about food. And I use the phrase a power is on your plate, because I actually believe that, you know, when one of the great things about food is it gives us agency it gives us the power to make the choice every single day to do something. You know, what I found when I was working in Borneo is that, you know, people would often say how do I save orangutans and how do I do this and I didn't have a clear answer for somebody says, you know, sitting in Canada, the US or Europe in terms of what they could do to save tropical forests. But that's a great thing about food. Food gives us that amazing agency to be able to create change, to be able to impact climate change, to be able to reduce the amount of biodiversity which is lost and feel great. Yoknow, it does give us power.

But like I said, we also have to be honest about the trade offs, because nothing is free. There is no free lunch, right? And we have to figure out where there will be trade offs, where there could potentially be impacts and how we're going to minimize those.

Samara   18:24

That's, I mean, that's a really interesting point, sort of the voting with your fork approach. What would you say to people who criticize framing it in terms of individual dietary choice as something which obscures power in the food system that has created the system that we have. Say, palm oil production in Borneo?

Brent  18:43

Well? Yeah, speaking of the palm oil production in Borneo, this is also something which is not a very simple answer to unpack, because, you know, we tend to want to jump on the power of diets to being able to change and impact the system. So we can say, Well, if you don't eat palm oil, if you avoid these, these products, therefore you're saving, you know, this species orangutans, or something else. And there's been a lot of very nice imagery or bad imagery that's been used to actually support that argument. But what we're seeing now is that as people shift away from using palm oil, the impacts on local communities is massive and the economic impacts. So you know, they lose jobs, they lose resources, they lose economic livelihoods. And in some cases, that leads further to actually deforestation because as a way of supplementing your income instead of working on palm oil plantations, and cutting down forests, so just completely shifting away from one product and saying that we're going to save the world, by getting rid of palm oil, the negative impacts that there could have on somewhere else, we have to carefully look at the causality of all the actions that we actually want to implement. It's not necessarily always as simple as what we think, you know, same can be said about red meat, you know it by shifting away from red meat consumption, and there is going to be a potential impact on livelihoods. And we need to look at that and then we need to be ready to be able to address some of those impacts and make sure that those loss of jobs aren't like taken out through other bad activities, like maybe cutting down forests and selling that wood for income.

Matthew  20:11

That’s interesting to think how individual consumer choices are connected to larger systems, which is a good transition to dive into some of the details in the report. It’s a really comprehensive work that modelled 5 different diets and 8 different health indicators across 147 countries. So there's a lot to unpack. Can you first start with explaining how changing diets can reverse biodiversity loss?

Brent  20:34

Food is  by far the leading driver of biodiversity loss globally, you know, there's estimates of between 70-80% of species that are threatened made comes from food, and how we actually produce it may come from that tropical deforestation, which is happening, I mean, we're losing 5 million hectares per year. Most of this is currently taking place in places like Brazil, Indonesia, three quarters of that tropical deforestation is currently driven by agriculture. And beef production is responsible for about 41% of that food drives a lot of the tropical deforestation a lot of the global conversion of land that we're seeing. So that's one way that shifting diets can actually start to reduce that land pressure that we have, because you know, how I see it is that so much of this comes down to is we have to figure out how do we start to reduce the pressure on land that we're putting on it today. And diets is one of those enablers that allows the pressure to just start to ease off a bit.

Matthew 21:30

And at what scale do you find is the best way to reduce biodiversity loss through diets?

Brent 21:37

But then how do we do this? Right? Is it more of the local scale? Is it more the global scale? And I would say that there is no ideal scale, unfortunately and Anna and I don't want to get you know, that sounds like a terribly academic answer in terms of saying Well, it depends on It's complicated, right, but in, but it actually does, you know, in this case, and I think we have to be, you know, we have to become a lot more comfortable with the with the fact that there is no ideal scale. And it really is context dependent. You know, we've heard a lot over the last few years on on on local diets. And the importance of local diet, there's 100 mile diet, there's a push for fart for opening up farmers markets, there's a push for urban food systems. And the local COVID-19 pandemic has definitely raised the importance of local food production, because some of the markets have been heavily disrupted by COVID-19. So in some circles, there is a renewed push for increasing local food, which I think is great. And I think local food production is very important. But it's not going to solve the world's problems. It's not one of those panaceas that we can hang our hat up on, because it's not as simple as saying that local food is going to solve everything. Well, we find in this report is that in some cases, local food can actually drive negative impacts.

Samara 22:45

Can you explain how that works and in what context increasingly local diets might lead to worse environmental outcomes?

Brent 22:53

If we look at all the countries around the world that are facing significant burdens of undernutrition. In those particular countries, this crisis of under nutrition and feeding a population is a number one goal that these countries want to solve. Which makes sense, right. But in those particular cases, what that means is that often we have to increase consumption of more of the heathy foods, it's the fruits and vegetables, and you know, other things, as we increase consumption of food that puts pressure on the land. And if these countries tackle this problem by only domestically increasing how they produce food, and they don't increase trade, that's gonna involve land, and we're gonna have to convert our land in a place like Indonesia, that could potentially involve converting more land, which could potentially drive biodiversity loss up. And that's something that we can't have happen.

Matthew 23:41 

Brent then explored the tensions between how much food should be produced locally versus traded internationally and how these decisions might impact the environment and food security.

Brent 23:50

I think that one of the things that we also need to understand is that in order to solve this global problem of how we feed every single person on the planet, we might actually have to increase trade, and increase the trade of food. And just because we trade food, is that's not always like a bad thing. I know that some individuals say, Well, you know, you can't have that avocado, because eating that avocado came from Chile, and shipping that avocado from Chile is a really bad thing. And that has negative environmental impacts. But you know, when you start to look at the numbers, the overall global transport of food is less than 1% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. And that individual if they drove their car to the supermarket to pick up that avocado just had a larger impact in greenhouse gas emissions than, than that avocado itself, you know, so we really need to make sure that we understand a look at the facts put things into perspective.

Matthew 24:40

Brent was even more optimistic about the prospect of future technological developments lowering the carbon footprint of food transportation.

Brent 24:47

This is especially true if we decarbonize the shipping industry. So if we're looking at the transport sector, and we decarbonize that and there's some interesting technology, which is going into actually decarbonizing that sector, then it actually doesn't matter where we ship food in from, we could ship a product from Chile to Sweden. And the overall impact of that would be very low. Because we're we're using on ships that don't emit any fossil fuels. I know this is in the future, and this is where we're heading. But that is a world where we could actually increase the trade of food without increasing environmental impacts

Matthew 25:22

Still, Brent expressed some caution about increasing trade, thinking beyond environmental impacts.

Brent 25:25

But there's a lot of tension there with food security, and no country wants to be held hostage to food. If they get in conflict with a neighbor where they're trading food, they don't want that to be something that puts them at risk. So somehow, we're also going to have to solve this problem as well. Local food is absolutely important. We should support it when and where necessary, but it’s not going to be enough to solve this problem. This really is a global issue. It’s this global puzzle that we’re going to have to figure out.

Samara 25:55

So we just spoke about some of the complicated aspects of biodiversity loss, how about from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective? How would you recommend different countries shift their diets?

Brent  26:04

There is absolutely no best diet for individual nations. When you look at where this plays out globally, and when we're looking at greenhouse gas emissions, most countries around the world have very low per capita greenhouse gas emission impacts. It's the G20 countries that have the greatest impact. And some of the G20 countries are, without a doubt, have huge impacts. So we can't treat everybody equally. And what we need to figure out is how do we look at individual nations and say those countries that have high per capita emissions, we need to reduce those rapidly, very quickly. And that could potentially open up the space for increasing greenhouse gas emissions and other countries. So those countries like Indonesia, India, Malawi, Madagascar that have to tackle severe burdens of undernutrition, that might potentially mean that greenhouse gas emissions in those countries may go up. But if greenhouse gas emissions go up in one place, they have to come down even more in some other place. And those countries mainly are mostly the G20 countries. So it's a differentiated responsibility, and really trying to figure out, you know, who's responsible for this consumption of food? How do we tackle that? How do we ensure that those emissions come down in some places which creates space within the global budget for food? To actually raise in some areas that's, that's, that's something that we're also going to have to figure out how we solve that problem.

Matthew  27:22

And while that makes intellectual sense, too, in the sense that If the G20 countries are reducing their emission to leave room for other countries to grow their emissions they still would be at a significantly higher per capita rate. But I imagine that isn't the most politically popular finding -

Brent  27:40

Differentiated responsibility is a hotly, hotly debated topic. Right. You know, the same as, like, when we're looking at the Paris, Paris, you know, people are saying, well, whose responsibility is this? You know, it's these few countries that have used most of the global budget for these gases. And, and, and therefore, you know, we also need to develop, so therefore, it's more your responsibility to actually produce it. But you know, like you said, Matthew, this is not a very popular topic, I guess, is a very mild way of putting it.

Matthew  28:06

There’s a lot in this report that we haven’t discussed, and we’ll link to it in our show notes for those who’d like to get more into the weeds. But can you share a key takeaway from the report to transform the food system?

Brent  28;12

You know, I would say the most immediate low hanging fruit is to ask individuals to shift their diets. I mean, that's, that's the quickest thing that we could do. You know, so if everybody listening to this podcast today makes a conscious decision to to eat within a theme that I talked about that planet based diet of consuming more fruits and vegetables, a higher proportion of plant based foods relative to animal source foods that will have an absolute immediate impact, you can do it today, right, you can do it three times every single day, you can get your friends on board. So that will have immediate impact. But I wouldn't necessarily consider it a low hanging fruit for what I talked about, you know, it's those bottom up movements in terms of getting everybody on board and changing behavior, I think can be really tough. You know, some of the more top down things are definitely reforming NDGs national dietary guidelines, I think if we start to look at national dietary guidelines, and raise the ambition of them, and make sure that they're more aligned with health and environmental goals, International goals, that will definitely help. We need to figure out how to tackle marketing, because right now, the marketing to young kids is actually quite awful. There was a study done by I think it's an organization out of the UK called bike back 2030, I believe it's called, it's a youth organization that works with youth on healthy, healthy and sustainable diets. And what they found is that there was active collusion between marketing companies and businesses to market junk food to young kids, you know, and it's those types of things that we absolutely have to change and we should make illegal that that type of marketing of harmful foods to kids has to stop. 
 We also have to figure out how make healthy foods a lot more interesting and sexy for individuals. Because right now, when we tend to think of healthy foods, we tend to think of “It’s boring, it doesn’t taste good. It’s no fun, it’s not nearly as fun as having that steak.” There’s that cultural identity in eating more of the animal sourced foods and we have to shift away from that and I think there we have a lot to learn from those marketing companies that do a great job of marketing some of these unhealthy foods to individuals.

Samara  30:10

So you mentioned steak, and we can't talk to somebody about diets without bringing up meat because it's such a hot button topic in a sustainable food systems conversations. So as I'm sure you're well aware of many people would argue that, you know, meat isn't actually a problem, it's how its produced is the problem. And you don't really delve into that so much in the report to have different production systems could impact diet dietary choices. So, you know, theoretically, could we keep eating exactly what we're eating, but just produce the food in a different way? So that's one question. But I really want you to dig into that question around meat, because I'm sure you have heard a lot of feedback on that issue.

Brent  30:49

I would agree that meat is not the problem. And I think that meat gets vilified too often. It's not a problem of meat, per se, it's how much we eat. And in so many parts of the world, we're just consuming way too much of it, you know, that at levels that are just, you know, we've gone from this idea of eating meat once or twice a week to eating it every single day at every single meal. And I think some people, they have a tough time even cooking a meal without meat being at the center. So there's definitely been a cultural shift within the past generations, in some places to say that, well, meat is some of those whose is is one of those things that has to be served at every meal. So I wouldn't blame the meat for that, you know, you know, meat in, you know, is is a vital source of certain types of nutrients. And it can deliver certain types of nutrients for our bodies, but we have to eat it in the right proportion, just like a wouldn't have fruit and only fruit, or a or wouldn't have seafood every single day. It's one of those luxury items, we have to start considering, you know, the same thing with meat. I mean, God, I love lobster, it's great. But I'm not going to have it for every single meal. You know, I'm going to moderate my consumption of, of lobster. You know, and we have to start thinking about meat that way.

Samara  31:55

And do different livestock production systems matter?

Brent 31:58

Should we be producing beef on an industrial scale and industrial feedlots? There are those would argue that would say, Well, if we produce meat and industrial feed, like that doesn't take very much land. So therefore, there are some land savings there. And we have talked about the fact that land is a very vital resource. And then there's the other half of the coin, though, that would say that if you were considered if you were to consume meat, you should consume it for like grasslands. And because grasslands have off of the potential of being able to store carbon, it protects biodiversity. In you know, very often cattle on these ecosystems are part of the system themselves, they there, they're able to supply nutrients to the system, they're able to store some of the carbon. You know, so that is it. That is a hotly debated topic, and we did not talk about it within the report. Just because there's not an easy way of actually talking about this.

Matthew 32:50

To delve more into this topic, we recommend checking out the 2018 report Grazed and Confused led by TABLE director Tara Garnett. The report dissects what the science says about grazing systems and their impacts on greenhouse gas emissions. We’ll link to the report and an 8-minute video explainer in our shownotes.

Brent 33:09

But I would say if we're talking about beef, there are some general rules that I think that we could probably follow. First is reduce our consumption of it, that we should think about consumption of meat as being a luxury item. And it should be something that we can have a few times a week, but not for every single meal. Second thing is because it takes so much resource to produce that meat, we should absolutely not waste any of it. All the meat that we should eat all the meat that we actually goes into producing it we should know we should consume, we should, we should treat it as a very important commodity. The third thing if we are going to choose one type of beef over the other, it would probably be better to eat like grass fed beef than other beef because of the other benefits of you know, biodiversity benefits, water retention, and also storing carbon on these areas. You know, so I would say that when it comes to the filter, those are three rules that that probably hold true.

Matthew  34:02

One thing that we haven't explicitly said but I think is underlying a lot of this is that changing diets is really hard. Because it's personal, it's related to cultural values, It's related to habits.

Brent  34:14

You know, I actually think changing diets is quite easy. I know that it's often said that changing diets is really hard, because you know, we want to hold on to them, and we don't want to change them. But now look at how rapidly diets have shifted within our lifetimes. And you know, you got certain cultures, where the diet has shifted from a more traditional diet to more of a Western diet in a single generation. And that's been done through heavy marketing. You know, what, whether it's supporting some foods or over others, you know, so I think diets can absolutely shift much more quickly than what we think the goal that we need to do is we just need to use the same type of methods to promote unhealthy foods as as to actually promote healthy foods. And I think we can actually shift it back towards some of the more healthier alternatives much more quickly than what we think. Also on that, there are a lot of cultures around the world that are already eating healthy. And I think we cannot forget that. So this isn't this universal idea of shifting diets everywhere, there are so many parts of the world, so many diets that we can look at. There are aspects of the Indian diet, Mediterranean diet, you know, in Japan, and Africa, you know, there are healthy dietary patterns where people are eating within environmental limits. And they're eating a very diverse and rich diet. So it's not everywhere. In some cases, it's just holding on to the traditional dietary patterns and not making that shift towards more the resource intensive Western consumption patterns that that we see.

Matthew 35:35

But I'm curious, especially in relation to the meat question. There are, there are some alternatives kind of coming onto the market now. Whether they're plant based meat substitutes or cell based meat. There's also the the notion of a low food chain diet, where there's more insects or bivalves, or mollusks. I was wondering what you think of some of these alternative approaches and, and if it is possible to integrate them more wide, more widespread into diets, and, and whether those share the same environmental and health goals that we were discussing earlier.

Brent 36:04

Will these alternative approaches, whether it's insects or more plant based meats, catch on globally? I'm skeptical, I would say that they definitely have a role to play. But I'm skeptical that they will be able to catch on wide enough and have the time that we need to create real change. You know, but with, you know, we've talked about the complexity of this process. But that's not to minimize a their overall importance, it's just to say we shouldn't look at them as being a panacea, we should look at them as being one of many solutions on the table. You know, it's a bit like local food, local food is important in certain contexts, but it's not going to solve the problem. Same thing with insects, insects, and plant based meats are important, but they're not going to solve the problem. It's just one of many solutions that we have to look at.

Samara  36:52

So we have a set of concluding questions that we like to ask all of our guests. And the first one of those is what visions of the future food system alarm you and which inspire you.

Brent  37:05

Well, I don't know if you guys have seen a movie Wall-E. I watched it with my girls a couple weeks ago. And I would say that type of vision of the food system and individuals, you know, a food system that is absolutely destroying people's health, and has destroyed the planet is really scary. You know, and I've mentioned a few times that one of my favorite places are the rain forests of Borneo. You know, I spent years deep in, you know, into the heart of the jungle, researching clouded leopards, and orangutans, and camping in really, really remote places. And these places are magical. And the thought of a world where we lose systems like that, and biodiversity like that, to produce food that is unhealthy to produce food that is also driving multiple health issues, I think is a complete tragedy. So that is definitely a future of the food system that I don't want to see happen. But we don't have to see it happen, you know, we can actually create a food system that nourishes every single person on the planet, we can actually feed 10 billion people on the planet and do it within those planetary boundaries, those environmental limits that I you know, that I've mentioned a few times, that is actually possible. But that requires all of us to get on board. You know, we have to shift diets. You know, diets are one of those things that enables all these other things to take place, we have to stop wasting food, we have to change how we how we produce food. And we when we do those things together, then then then we can actually feed everybody healthy food. And if we consider that a human right, if we consider the access to healthy food in a human right, and this has got to be something that we take seriously. You know, I watch my kids eat healthy food. And it's such a wonderful thing to watch them eat broccoli and things that you just know is good for them. And, you know, I think that a world where we're all this type of eat this type of food Sounds pretty good to me. 

Samara  38:55

You started touching on some of our next question. So part of table sort of, you know, idea but what we want to talk about with people is the idea that people come to put systems work with different values, different experiences, different normative assumptions that shape their understandings of food systems. Can you reflect on what some of yours might be?

Brent  39:15

Yeah, I would say that some of my normative assumptions as I as I place the hive In nature, I place a high value on the importance of these ecosystems for our mental and physical health, for the stability of the planet, and you know, I want to live in a world where you've got Tigers still lurking through the forest, and you've got a ring a tank swinging through the trees, and you've got this amazing biodiversity, you know, still in the oceans that you can go see, you know, that's the type of world that I want to, hopefully, my girls can actually see and be part of. So I would say that that is a huge normative value of mind that drives a lot of the decisions that I make and why I'm you know, doing this work, others might not value that others might not think that's important that that that a world that's mainly concrete and where we live in more of a technological world of you know, computers and and, and, and nature is not really that big a deal. We can just experience it through our TVs or, you know, laptops, or phones, they might value that more, and therefore they might be thinking very differently about this. So

Matthew 40:13

what do you think is getting too much attention in in food system debates and what is being forgotten about?

Brent  40:18

Quick fixes, panaceas, Earth shots, Game Changing ideas, Elon Musk's 100 million dollar carbon sequestration, tech fix, I mean, you know, these things are getting all the headlines right now. Add Bill Gates to the mix and everybody else, right. I think this is great, I think these game changing solutions, and being able to point in that direction is, is good. What I worry about that, you know, so I'm not against that type of thinking Absolutely not. But I what I worry about with that type of thinking is, we rely too heavily on looking at a game changing idea or technological fix to solve the problem. When the solution is right in our hands, we know what to do. Shift diets, reduce food loss and waste, produce food a lot better. And we can fix the entire food system, we can feed every single person on the planet and do it within planetary boundaries

You know, it's much easier to talk about, reducing food loss and waste, that's simple, there's really no debate about that. It's much easier to talk about regenerative agriculture, or changing how we produce food and all these positive benefits of certain types of production systems. But shifting our diets is one of those things that people do not want to talk about, in many cases, especially in political discourse. You know, we'll talk about everything but diets.   

Matthew  41:43

And lastly, what evidence and knowledge do you draw from in your own research and work?

Brent  41:49

That's a tough question for me to answer because I would say that I, I try and draw from a very diverse set of evidence. I try not to get pulled too far down into my own silo, where I'm only looking at people that agree with me, you know, so I do try and look at, you know, and read opinions and follow some Twitter feeds of individuals that might not have share the same worldview as I do. It's hard. It's very hard, because I think each one of us is programmed to read things that we're interested in and some of the other stuff, we're less interested in. But I think it's important, especially in this day and age, that we try and diversify our new sources. And I try, so I definitely rely on a very broad mix of whether it's scientific literature, social media, to give me a diverse views not only on what the science is saying, but also on where the world is pointing.

Matthew  42:40

Related to that. What do you think is a good point that someone you don't necessarily agree with? makes about the food system?

Brent  42:47

You know, I would say, Yeah, I would, I would say one really good point about the food system comes from come from cattle ranchers. And a lot of the cattle ranchers and that I work with feel like they are being villainized as being the culprits behind all the ills of the world. That the fact that they're producing these these animals that are destroying the planet, somehow, you know, so I think that that, that what cattle ranchers are saying is, Hey, you know, you know, it's it's not that simple that many cattle ranchers out there are working on systems, and they're working to try and protect nature, they're working to try and restore grasslands that they're working to try and, you know, protect these vital ecosystems. And we need to be much more sensitive to the fact of, of once again, not jumping on a particular food and vilifying that food, because the problem isn't meat, it's how much of the meat that we eat. So I've learned a lot from the cattle ranchers that I've talked to. And, you know, realize that we we need a world where every you know, everybody's part of it. And I would say the cattle ranch, though definitely part of the solution. And they're not part of the problem. Or I would say, yeah, they aren't the only problem now, but they're definitely part of the solution.

Matthew  43:41

Yeah. And thank you so much for your time and talking to us.

Samara  43:44

Yeah, that was really interesting.

Brent  43:46

And thanks, guys. You know, like I said, at the beginning, I think that what you're doing with these Table debates is so important that we are able to create the space where we can talk about difficult issues, and not necessarily preach to the choir, but we're able to bring on a diverse set of audiences and individuals to be able to, you know, share their views. So I appreciate the work that you're doing. And it's been a pleasure, pleasure being part of it.

Matthew  44:11

And that wraps another episode of the Feed podcast presented by Table, a food systems collaboration between Oxford University, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University. More resources connected to this episode including open-access to the WWF report Bending the curve, the restorative power of a planet-based diet, can be found on our website:

Thank you for listening and if you’ve enjoyed the show and have a spare minute, please open up your iTunes or podcast player and leave us a review! It really helps us other people find the show. Also, let us know how you think we’re doing, what topics you’d like us to cover, and who else you’d like us to speak to, by sending us an email to
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Today's episode was edited and mixed by me, Matthew Kessler, with thanks to co-host Samara Brock, and the extended Table community. Music in this episode by Blue dot sessions. We'll be back in your Feed soon when we speak to Jessica Duncan, rural sociologist at Wageningen University about what is food policy, how to improve participation and dialogue in food policy processes, and we unpack her recently published report – Gender, Covid-19 and Food Systems.

Jessica Duncan 46:11

What I found most interesting from the report was that the challenges facing women food producers around the world were so strikingly similar. That the challenge facing the food producers in Europe, were very similar to the women we interviewed in East Africa, in the Pacific and in North America. And that’s really about access to land and the value of women food producers.


Join us in two weeks to hear more from Jessica Duncan.