LCA Food 2016

Way to go for climate-friendly meals

October 21, 2016

LCA Food 2016 image

It feels like I am going back to school. I prepared myself a nice lunch pack. A crispy baguette with baby leaf spinach and some lentils in it. I didn’t had time for breakfast, so I prepared it for the way. This is going to be a great day. There are over 200 sessions at the LCA Food 2016 conference in Dublin. I am sitting on the bus 46A waiting to get through the traffic, which will take about an hour to the final location, the local University College’s lecture hall. I am excited in anticipation of what is going to happen.

The LCA Food 2016 (LCA stands for Life Cycle Assessment) is the world’s biggest conference concerning food and sustainability. There are 320 attendees from all over the world. Experts in assessing and analyzing the carbon footprint of various foods. Almost everyone is presenting their work. Entering the large halls gives me an impression, that this is going to be a modern forward thinking event. People in suits are standing around, some are having a chat. Many seem to know each other already for some time. Overall there is a relaxed and cheering atmosphere. Some people are still building up their information booths, and so do I. I haven’t met yet anyone I know. But the first contact is made fast.

You might have guessed it; meat and dairy is a big topic around here. I have counted 83 presentations just on this topic. Almost unilateral, and even despite the milk and meat industry being big sponsors of the overall scientific work done in the field, everyone agrees the livestock is the worst thing happening to our planet when it comes to food. The worst on almost every impact category like water, land use, toxicity, greenhouse gases, etc.

31% of all greenhouse gasses originate from our food consumption. On average for an European citizen, this is about 4–5kg of CO2eq a day (without the transportation of the food). About half of that — or 14.5% in total to be precise — are the carbon emissions only from livestock. Pigs, chicken, and cows. Especially cows because they’re contributing double. First, through their feed, and second because of the methane they emit as ruminants. There are currently 1.6 billion cows globally, bread for the sole purpose of satisfying our thirst for their milk and body parts. On my conference name-badge, there is a little sticker „vegan“ affixed. I am not alone, I meet numerous conference guests with the same sticker. It feels great to be together on this. It feels to me that there is a great transformative spirit in the air. That if change is going to happen towards a more sustainable food system, it has to start exactly with these people around here. All the worldwide knowledge we have on sustainability and food is present here. This is the elite for sustainability and food. These are the thought leaders that govern the international conversation, on what needs to get done here. The Copenhagen Accord demands a 2.0 degree target. We have decided as a world community, that we need to reduce emissions down to net 1 ton of CO₂ by 2050. Basically, getting carbon neutral after subtracting the amounts we may be able to capture and sequester. Taking these numbers seriously (and not even discussing, that we should actually get down to 1.5 degrees), we need to cut our food-related emissions at least by half. Meaning that we will have to avoid eating animals at large, reducing our livestock numbers to 10–15% of the current count.

And we do have to take these numbers seriously. I don’t want to get started, on what kind of dark ages are in front of us, if we do not. We all know it. Everyone on the conference knows it. A pretty big challenge making things more complicated is population growth. The prognosis is that there will be 11 billion people on the planet, adding to China’s and India’s future demand for more meat, emissions will actually double by 2050 if we continue like this. The conference feels like home to me. In contrast to the climate conference COP21. Where it was rather frustrating, as food was not a topic that was addressed. It was not mentioned at the conference. It was not a topic at the numerous side events. It was not a topic for the demonstration leaders. At least, finally, we found some post-capitalism activists at Cafe Caché in Paris, most of their banners were about food. But, this is certainly not going to cut it.

Food System Change Not Climate Change. The Food LCA conference passes on. I am learning so much, from the talks and conversations. Every person is an expert on some food related domain. Every person knows an important piece of the puzzle. I love consuming all that knowledge. And lots of myths are exposed. Organic grass-fed animal produce isn’t actually better. Huge amounts of lettuce are thrown away, but that doesn’t hurt the climate. Yet, still, most foodwaste related carbon emissions come from vegetables. Deforestation can now be accounted for. Drinking milk doesn’t have any significant impact on health (a glass will save us 30 second of our life — but only if you drink it fast enough). And so on. Dinner gets served. Little canapés with different kinds of cheeses. Carefully I approach one of the organizers. I might be already known to her as a trouble maker (I complained earlier about the location of our booth to a colleague of hers). And I ask her: Which one of these are vegan? (Formulating the question hypothetically, as I might be wrong about thinking that all the cheese is from cows milk). I stand there waiting in the kitchens entrance for her to reach out to the chef. „He will know“, she tells me with a polite smile. As expected, suddenly the woman (I complained to earlier) comes along and directs me with a harsh tone back out of the entrance. I should wait outside.

They come back with the excuse that they prepared nothing vegan for me to eat. And they are sorry. They serve me some improvised pear, dates and dry toast (the toast, they took from taking apart the sandwiches that were served earlier). I eat the small portion, and ask for more. Yet they have to decline, they have no more left. They feel bad. They look at me and know that I am really hungry. What they don’t know, is that I am happy with my choice. And that I don’t have any bad feelings about them and sitation. It feels to me so much better, eating some delicious fruits — then to compromise on the available alternative. Later, I find out from Nicholas Holden (the organizer of the conference) that the kitchen was asked to prepare vegan options. They are no bad people, they probably just forgot. My request might have been the first of its sort for them at all. Yet what actually does shock me. Which makes me feel weak, puzzled and confused. Is that there is no other conference guest asking for a sustainable option. Everyone is standing there, eating up what is served. There are no complaints at all, as I find out by asking around. I really think we all need to get some guts here. Stand up, for what we believe in. And if it is, like in my case, that you believe that a sustainable planet — including a sustainable food system — is possible. We actively have to work for it. We have to stand up, and make our opinions heard. Even if we maybe falling out of context. Stick out, and maybe looked at weirdly. But we will be right. In my opinion. Everyone who knows about food and climate has the moral obligation to act. Everyone who acts instantly becomes a leader.

The gala dinner of the conference is no difference. Around 200 participants got served: 200g of „Charred Golden Vale Beef Sirloin“. To the reader’s convenience, we have calculated the CO2eq of the „LCA Food 2016 Gala Dinner“, and published the results here: Per person, this amounts to around 12kg of CO₂eq — or 650% more then an average meal. If everyone on this planet, including me, were to eat such a meal every day, we would triple worldwide carbon emissions. Not a great outlook at all. In regard to the climate, it is the worst meal that could have been served.

I wonder what your choice would have been? Would you have dared to demand a more sustainable food option? Just to move the needle. Just to get the discussion started? My explanation is, that we all have become too well adjusted to all the wealth that we live in. Nobody wants to be the first to stick out, and complain about our unsustainable choices. Through education we acquire the strength to ignore so many other aspects of our lives. Along the way we forget, that our personal actions represent our values. And those values are our most powerful tool we. They give us the strength to convince humanity piece by piece to follow towards the ideals of a better world. Now I am almost convinced, that there is now “soft-way” left. Does it mean, when the people on the most important gathering to reduce food related emissions, do not have the power to do so themselves, that we have to turn to more restrictive measures? Do we need a carbon tax, that enforces plant-based and climate-friendly food options? So long, until we finally all agree that this is the new normal? „It’s ridiculous, right?“ another conference guest confirms to me, as I point the gala dinner decision out to him. While he bites in his freshly served lamb-meat-ball, he tells me: „A couple of years ago at the FUSION food-waste conference in Amsterdam, they served foie gras. It wasn’t only just really bad for the environment, on top of it they even had to throw away most of the food, because nobody wanted to eat it. We could say, that we are lucky this time.“ I say nothing and nod.

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