Can a city really go vegetarian?
The announcement last week that Turin — the industrial core of meat-loving Italy — will be making moves toward vegetarianism was met with some groans. According to The Guardian, the meat-reduction agenda introduced by the city’s new mayor, Chiara Appendino, drew complaints of nanny-stateism; one disgruntled Tweeter mocked the proposal, writing: “If you disobey [the mayor’s agenda] in Turin you’ll go to bed without dinner.”
In Italy, where salami and pancetta are the bleeding heart to pasta’s soul, Appendino’s pledge to promote vegetarianism — maybe even veganism — understandably rings as a death sentence. While Turin’s new administration claims its intent is not to eradicate the city’s cultural heritage, residents are disgruntled. The Telegraph relayed one commenter’s response to an article on an Italian news site: “Quinoa is revolting.” But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to Torinesi: as a leader in the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party, which strikes an odd balance between environmental progressivism and questionable social conservatism, Appendino has been vocal in her support of her party’s focus on green energy and sustainability — which includes dietary modifications.
The current tension in Turin perhaps derives from the fact that many people do not equate meat consumption with climate change. This blind spot has been noted by researchers: a 2014 study from the U.K.-based think tank Chatham House noted that “compared with other sectors, recognition of the livestock sector as a significant contributor to climate change is markedly low.” The Chatham House report adds that while governments around the world have been quick on the uptake in implementing campaigns and regulations designed to reduce energy use and carbon emissions — from encouraging people to turn out the lights to banning cars on the road for certain days out of the year — administrations have been skittish about extending that oversight to diets. When governments have tried to intervene in this regard — infamously, for instance, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failed soda ban — pushback has been strong. “There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people lives and tell them what to eat,” Rob Bailey, the lead author on the report, said in The Guardian.
But it’s growing increasingly impossible to ignore how our carnivorous preferences are tangled up in the fate of the planet. Agriculture and food production currently account for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, 80 percent of which are livestock-related, according to new research from the Oxford Martin School. The study modeled four different global scenarios to predict how those numbers might alter by the year 2050: In one, consumption and production continued at the current rate; another predicted the outcome of adherence to global dietary guidelines, which limit red meat, sugar, and total calories while emphasizing fruit and vegetable intake; the last two modeled the impact of strict vegetarian and vegan diets.
What the Oxford scientists found was striking. Following dietary guidelines — which limit, but don’t exclude, meat — saw a 29 percent reduction in food-related emissions; a vegetarian diet raised that number to 63 percent; and a vegan diet reduced emissions by 70 percent. The study also tracked the health benefits of reducing meat intake, and found that a global diet in line with recommended levels of consumption could reduce yearly deaths by 5.1 people, and save hundreds of billions of dollars in healthcare costs.
Marco Springmann, the lead author of the Oxford study, said in The Guardian that it’s imperative the link between diet and climate change be made more apparent, adding:
We do not expect everybody to become vegan. But the climate change impacts of the food system will require more than just technological changes. Adopting healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets can be a large [step] in the right direction. The size of the projected benefits should encourage individuals, industry and policymakers to act decisively to make sure that what we eat preserves our environment and health.
The scorn with which Turin’s plan was met testifies to both the knowledge gap around those issues, and the difficultly policymakers will have in bridging it. While details of how Appendino plans to implement this push toward vegetarianism — part of her 62-page proposal for the city — are still unclear, it’s not as unreasonable a move as some of the backlash makes it out to be.
In How We Get to Next, the journalist Ajit Niranjan argued that “it’s time for cities to talk about meat.” In the next several decades, Niranjan wrote, obesity and climate change will be two of the most pressing challenges for cities — indeed, leaders are already convening summits around both public health and the environment. Given the success of local government initiatives to promote cycling and curb cigarette smoking, cities could address meat consumption as an issue at the intersection of many factors that will impact the places that we live, and our personal health within them.
That will, undeniably, require instigating a societal sea change. And if we follow the logic that the biggest shifts must happen gradually, the pushback against Appendino’s leap to vegetarianism is understandable. However, Barcelona, as our sister site CityLab Latino recently reported, is dealing a softer blow by declaring itself “veg friendly” and a “friend of vegan and vegetarian culture.” While shying away from a prescriptivist approach to diet, Barcelona will work to establish itself as a convener of information about the meat-free lifestyle: A new meeting space, BCN Veg Point, will bring consumers and entrepreneurs together in discussion, and the city will launch a new app and guide to the local vegan and vegetarian hotspots.
And like other cities across the world have already done, Barcelona will introduce Meatless Mondays — a global initiative to go veg one day a week, and reduce personal meat consumption by 15 percent. While not a complete cultural overhaul, these small actions will serve as examples of effecting social change through public policy that governments elsewhere could replicate, Rosi Carro, the campaign coordinator for the animal-rights association Libera!, said in CityLab Latino.
And carnivores out there ready to take up arms against any and all meat restrictions, take heart: this week, the people at Impossible Foods won over the heart of New York chef and meat enthusiast David Chang, who was so persuaded by the company’s plant-based burger that is somehow still bloody that he’s adding it to his menu at Momofuku Nishi. If it’s that hard to tell the difference between plant and animal when it’s sandwiched between a roll, there’s hope for the future.