Eating so as To Save the Planet

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

In what could be a game-changing shift, for the first time we are now being advised to eat right not only for our own good but for that of the planet too

In the past few decades, with the rise of NCDs or Non-Communicable Diseases, global health experts concerned with what is considered to be an epidemic, in parallel with a rise in overweight and obesity, have been dishing out advice about food habits that would help to counter this rise. In other words, nudging us to eat so as to keep healthy.

In what could be a game-changing shift, for the first time we are now being advised to eat right not only for our own good but for that of the planet too. In other words, by our individual decisions and actions about what we eat, we can contribute to lessen the damage being done to the environment that is leading to greenhouse effects – what is being called as ‘small changes for a large and positive impact.

Sounds like a long shot, but this is one of the key messages to the individual conveyed by a recent EAT-Lancet Commission, set up by the British medical journal Lancet, ‘the first to propose a diet on environmental grounds as well. It brought together 37 experts from 16 countries specialising in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, economics and politics to look at how a balance could be struck’. In fact, the Lancet has published the Commission’s recommendations as a ‘Brief for Everyone’ – the clear implication being that each one can play his role, assume part of the responsibility that will eventually benefit all of us collectively.

One of the key recommendations is ‘a diet consisting of around 35 per cent of calories obtained from whole grains and tubers, and protein mostly derived from plants, and would require meat to become a weekly or fortnightly treat rather than a daily staple’.

On reading this, I told myself, ‘but that’s exactly what we were doing when I was growing up!’ In fact, in those days of penury, the family could not afford to buy meat often, chicken came occasionally from the ones home-bred mostly for the eggs, and fresh fish or octopus was sourced from a street vendor who used to do the rounds in the locality once a week or so.

So our food was mainly vegetables, most of which were grown in our own garden – as was quite common in those days in several families – and as far as non-vegetarian items on week days were concerned, it was, most of the time, salted fish (‘sounouk’ and ‘poisson blanc’), ‘bomli’, or canned items, Glenryck pilchards and Watsonia corned mutton being the most common and affordable. There were of course pulses, again those most commonly used were black lentils, ‘dal bravate’, ‘gros pois’ and ‘haricots blancs’.

As for fruits and nuts, we had a variety from the garden, as well as peanuts. Things like orange, pear, apple and grapes were very rarely consumed as they had to be bought from the market in Curepipe, and the cost was prohibitive.

So basically our food consisted of ‘a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes alongside small portions of meat and dairy’and surprise, surprise, this is exactly what the EAT-Lancet Commission recommends! We are being advised to go back to what was once considered the poor man’s food that was looked down upon by those who were better-off, an attitude which persists to this day.

However, the reality is different, for emblematic of the times is what I overheard once between two maids discussing the fare for the coming end-of-year festivities – ‘pas conné qui pou preparer, tous les jours banané même, fatigué mange poule, la viande, saucisse, burger, Kentucky…’ Except for those who are really very poor, even among the low income group nowadays there is not much difference in terms of food habits from what those who are better-off eat, what with the advent of industrial production and processed foods.

What is ironic is that, still to this day, ‘manze ene bon zaffaire’ means having meat or poultry, or as a friend of mine humorously puts it ‘ene ti senti-pi’ – probably with reference to the salted fish and ‘bomli’ that bring the nostalgia of childhood to mind.

What is even more ironic, even tragic I would add, is that one has to practically force children and even young adults to have fruits,  which are now quite affordable to all.

The point is that whether we can make that U-turn that the EAT-Lancet Commission is advocating as a serious enterprise, the ‘Great Food Transformation’, on the basis that ‘The food we eat, the ways we produce it, and the amounts wasted or lost have major impacts on human health and environmental sustainability. Getting it right with food will be an important way for countries to achieve the targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change’.

And hence the recommendation that ‘a diet that includes more plant-based foods and fewer animal source foods is healthy, sustainable, and good for both people and planet’, which, as I have pointed out above, is what we were already doing in a past that is not too far away.

But we have got so used to the ‘modern’ mode of consumption, because of improvement in our socio-economic standard of living, that it will really require a major effort on the part of the large majority of us to effect the kind of change in our eating habits and our overall lifestyle that will be beneficial not only to us but to our planet Earth.

We are being called to assume a huge responsibility for our common good, and it is up to us to live up to it. Will we?

* Published in print edition on 19 April 2019

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