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Eating a meal that is good for both you and the planet can be simple – just ask a few questions before you tuck in

Putting biodiversity on the menu solves the thorny question of what to have for dinner

fresh vegetables

Sustainable eating doesn’t have to leave you with a dietary dilemma. Nature is complex, not complicated, and there is a simple solution.
Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA

Should you go full vegan, or is being “just” vegetarian enough? Do you completely avoid meat, go with lab-grown artificial meat, or insist on properly managed grass-fed meat only? Organic dairy milk is OK, isn’t it? Your friend said soy and almond milk are better – but you just read an article about how much water it takes to grow almonds, and isn’t soy farming a leading cause of rainforest clearing in the Amazon?

Deciding what to eat shouldn’t be this complicated – having a meal that is good for both you and our planet should be simple. And it is.

Nature is not complicated, it is complex. And while complicated problems have complicated solutions, complex problems have simple solutions.

Our impact on natural ecosystems began thousands of years ago with us reducing biological diversity.

Our ancestors killed off the things that wanted to eat them and protected the things they wanted to eat. Today we use hand washes “guaranteed to kill 99.9% of all bacteria” (remember, the good ones die too) and grow monocultures of corn and soy in fields that stretch to the horizon.

This reduction in biodiversity leads inevitably to a reduction in biomass (plant cover) which leads to a reduction in photosynthesis. This leads to a reduction in both carbon dioxide uptake from the atmosphere and the release of oxygen.

Next comes a reduction of accumulated organic matter (soil carbon) which in turn means nutrient cycling is disrupted and soil fertility is reduced. Rain doesn’t soak in as easily as it did, and the damaged soil cannot hold on to as much of the rain as it used to.

This drier soil now cannot moderate local relative humidity like it did, and across large areas local weather is negatively impacted. Do this on enough of our planet and our global climate starts to change – for the worse.

The bad news is that each of these steps is bolted on to the previous one – reducing biodiversity will inevitably lead to negative changes in our climate.

But the good news is also that each of these steps is bolted on to the previous one.

Enhancing biodiversity will lead to increases in biomass, which will mean more photosynthesis and greater uptake of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. Organic matter starts to accumulate once again, nutrient cycling kicks back in, and soil fertility begins to rebuild.

These healthier soils now soak more of the rain in deeper and hold on to it for longer – mitigating against both floods and droughts. This moderates relative humidity at the local level, and across large areas local weather is now positively impacted. Do this across enough of our planet and our global climate starts to change – for the better this time.

Industrial agriculture, whether crops, trees, or livestock, tends to decrease biodiversity. Vast monocultures of plants, and animals removed from the land and locked in sheds, are inherently less diverse than multi-species plantings and properly managed livestock grazing as nature intended.

I acknowledge that for many people their main source of food is and will probably remain industrial agriculture. But can we get at least some of our fruit and vegetables from local farmers markets, choose meat and eggs from animals that are properly managed, eat from a wider range of different foods, and not insist on summer fruits in the depths of winter?

So what does all of this have to with what you decide to have for dinner?

Just ask yourself this simple question – did the way in which my food was grown enhance biodiversity? If the answer is yes – tuck in!

Tony Lovell manages land and livestock to regenerate ecosystems and produce positive financial, social and environmental outcomes


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