The climate crisis is our biggest public health threat

Jane Philpott and Samantha Green: To tackle a global climate catastrophe, we should study how society has successfully faced other health crises

A woman and child wearing masks march in Ottawa as part of a Global Climate Strike, protesting against climate change and inaction, on Sept. 27, 2019. (Justin Tang/CP)

Jane Philpott is a medical doctor and former Member of Parliament. From 2015 to 2019, she served as federal Minister of Health, Minister of Indigenous Services and President of the Treasury Board. Samantha Green is a Toronto family physician and a Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment board member. 

The climate crisis makes us worry about the future for our children and grandchildren. As wildfires ravage Australia, we witness the dangers for the planet and its populations. Climate change is the biggest health crisis of this century. As family doctors, we see its impact on patients. Candace, for example, has severe asthma, and lives alone in Toronto Community Housing. She cannot afford an air conditioner and gets short of breath on extreme heat alert days. She fears dying alone in a hot apartment.

In 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change declared we have about a decade to avoid warming more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. More than 1.5 degrees of warming would be catastrophic for human health and the planet.

Canada is responsible for 1.6 percent of global emissions. This sounds small but we are the top emitter per capita at 21 tons per person per year. The global benchmark for a sustainable climate is less than two tons per person, per year. With this crisis at hand, we should study how society has successfully faced other threats to population health.

MORE: Can the courts legislate action on climate change?

For example, doctors responded to AIDS by doing more than treating individual patients. They joined activists and people living with HIV to challenge government inaction. In 1989, doctors joined with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Toronto’s AIDS Action Now! to seize the stage at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. They demanded access to experimental medications and ethical clinical trials.

AIDS is still a difficult global problem with no single solution. A cure is yet to be found. Mitigating the crisis is not simple and HIV/AIDS is not solved. Each day some are infected with HIV and others die of AIDS-related illnesses. But treatment is available. AIDS-related deaths have decreased more than 55 per cent since its peak in 2004.

There are lessons to take from AIDS that are applicable to the climate crisis. First, it takes multiple strategies, many people, collaboration, time, and patience to solve complex problems. Climate scientist Edward Maibach says we need “simple clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted voices” to cause change. It took sit-ins, civil disobedience, careful research, meticulous advocacy and activism from artists and human rights campaigns to awaken the world to AIDS.

MORE: The Tory climate plan unplugged

Second, like AIDS, the climate crisis is complex and seems impossible to solve. In the ’80s and ’90s, there was extreme despair around AIDS. Millions were dying. There was no treatment and no political will to find solutions. But activists worked relentlessly to find and disseminate a treatment. They had no choice. People involved in climate change work also experience hopelessness. Greta Thunberg has been successful leading the climate strike movement because it brings hope to people frozen with despair. People start to believe the crisis can be mitigated.

Finally, there are co-benefits in taking action to solve complex problems. The AIDS response contributed to the empowerment of the LGBTQ community. It sparked a broader patient-rights movement. It highlighted the connection between public health and marginalization. The parameters of medical research shifted. Prior to AIDS, condoms were seen simply as a form of contraception. Now they are widely used to prevent sexually transmitted infections.

Solving the climate crisis will likewise bring co-benefits. Decreasing use of fossil fuels not only decreases emissions, it improves air quality and decreases pollution-related harms. Ontario depended on coal for 30 per cent of its electricity. It closed all six of its plants in 2014 resulting in a decrease in smog-alert days and fewer asthma exacerbations.

MORE: The climate crisis: ‘Yes, we should be scared.’

Investment in active transportation also has co-benefits. People who cycle to work have a 50 per cent decreased risk of heart attack and a lower incidence of depression and dementia. Investing in bicycle and transit infrastructure will improve the health of our planet and individuals. A plant-based diet decreases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and some cancers.

What can individuals do about the climate crisis? Talk to friends, family, neighbours, and politicians about it. Live a more climate-neutral life—decrease car and air travel, decrease meat consumption; turn off air conditioners. We don’t have to be perfect, but we can be better.

The biggest emissions come from the oil and gas industries, but these can decrease with technical innovation and better government policy. So, get politically engaged. A price on carbon is an important start. Ask political parties if they will invest in fossil fuels and pipelines, or renewables.

Political representatives will act on climate change when they hear from the public and their constituents that climate change matters.  SOURCE

George Monbiot: Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet

Scientists are replacing crops and livestock with food made from microbes and water. It may save humanity’s bacon

Illustration: Matt Kenyon

It sounds like a miracle, but no great technological leaps were required. In a commercial lab on the outskirts of Helsinki, I watched scientists turn water into food. Through a porthole in a metal tank, I could see a yellow froth churning. It’s a primordial soup of bacteria, taken from the soil and multiplied in the laboratory, using hydrogen extracted from water as its energy source. When the froth was siphoned through a tangle of pipes and squirted on to heated rollers, it turned into a rich yellow flour.

This flour is not yet licensed for sale. But the scientists, working for a company called Solar Foods, were allowed to give me some while filming our documentary Apocalypse Cow. I asked them to make me a pancake: I would be the first person on Earth, beyond the lab staff, to eat such a thing. They set up a frying pan in the lab, mixed the flour with oat milk, and I took my small step for man. It tasted … just like a pancake.

But pancakes are not the intended product. Such flours are likely soon to become the feedstock for almost everything. In their raw state, they can replace the fillers now used in thousands of food products. When the bacteria are modified they will create the specific proteins needed for lab-grown meat, milk and eggs. Other tweaks will produce lauric acid – goodbye palm oil – and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – hello lab-grown fish. The carbohydrates that remain when proteins and fats have been extracted could replace everything from pasta flour to potato crisps. The first commercial factory built by Solar Foods should be running next year.

The hydrogen pathway used by Solar Foods is about 10 times as efficient as photosynthesis. But because only part of a plant can be eaten, while the bacterial flour is mangetout, you can multiply that efficiency several times. And because it will be brewed in giant vats the land efficiency, the company estimates, is roughly 20,000 times greater. Everyone on Earth could be handsomely fed, and using a tiny fraction of its surface. If, as the company intends, the water used in the process (which is much less than required by farming) is electrolysed with solar power, the best places to build these plants will be deserts.

We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.I know some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I believe it comes in the nick of time.

Several impending disasters are converging on our food supply, any of which could be catastrophic. Climate breakdown threatens to cause what scientists call “multiple breadbasket failures”, through synchronous heatwaves and other impacts. The UN forecasts that by 2050 feeding the world will require a 20% expansion in agriculture’s global water use. But water use is already maxed out in many places: aquifers are vanishing, rivers are failing to reach the sea. The glaciers that supply half the population of Asia are rapidly retreating. Inevitable global heating – due to greenhouse gases already released – is likely to reduce dry season rainfall in critical areas, turning fertile plains into dustbowls.

global soil crisis threatens the very basis of our subsistence, as great tracts of arable land lose their fertility through erosion, compaction and contamination. Phosphate supplies, crucial for agriculture, are dwindling fast. Insectageddon threatens catastrophic pollination failures. It is hard to see how farming can feed us all even until 2050, let alone to the end of the century and beyond.

Food production is ripping the living world apart. Fishing and farming are, by a long way, the greatest cause of extinction and loss of the diversity and abundance of wildlife. Farming is a major cause of climate breakdown, the biggest cause of river pollution and a hefty source of air pollution. Across vast tracts of the world’s surface, it has replaced complex wild ecosystems with simplified human food chains. Industrial fishing is driving cascading ecological collapse in seas around the world. Eating is now a moral minefield, as almost everything we put in our mouths – from beef to avocados, cheese to chocolate, almonds to tortilla chips, salmon to peanut butter – has an insupportable environmental cost.

But just as hope appeared to be evaporating, the new technologies I call farmfree food create astonishing possibilities to save both people and planet. Farmfree food will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale. It means an end to the exploitation of animals, an end to most deforestation, a massive reduction in the use of pesticides and fertiliser, the end of trawlers and longliners. It’s our best hope of stopping what some have called the “sixth great extinction”, but I prefer to call the great extermination. And, if it’s done right, it means cheap and abundant food for everyone.

Research by the thinktank RethinkX suggests that proteins from precision fermentation will be around 10 times cheaper than animal protein by 2035. The result, it says, will be the near-complete collapse of the livestock industry. The new food economy will “replace an extravagantly inefficient system that requires enormous quantities of inputs and produces huge amounts of waste with one that is precise, targeted, and tractable”. Using tiny areas of land, with a massively reduced requirement for water and nutrients, it “presents the greatest opportunity for environmental restoration in human history”.

Not only will food be cheaper, it will also be healthier. Because farmfree foods will be built up from simple ingredients, rather than broken down from complex ones, allergens, hard fats and other unhealthy components can be screened out. Meat will still be meat, though it will be grown in factories on collagen scaffolds, rather than in the bodies of animals. Starch will still be starch, fats will still be fats. But food is likely to be better, cheaper and much less damaging to the living planet.

It might seem odd for someone who has spent his life calling for political change to enthuse about a technological shift. But nowhere on Earth can I see sensible farm policies developing. Governments provide an astonishing £560bn a year in farm subsidies, and almost all of them are perverse and destructive, driving deforestation, pollution and the killing of wildlife. Research by the Food and Land Use Coalition found that only 1% of the money is used to protect the living world. It failed to find “any examples of governments using their fiscal instruments to directly support the expansion of supply of healthier and more nutritious food.”

Nor is the mainstream debate about farming taking us anywhere, except towards further catastrophe. There’s a widespread belief that the problem is intensive farming, and the answer is extensification (producing less food per hectare). It’s true that intensive farming is highly damaging, but extensive farming is even worse. Many people are rightly concerned about urban sprawl. But agricultural sprawl – which covers a much wider area – is a far greater threat to the natural world. Every hectare of land used by farming is a hectare not used for wildlife and complex living systems.

paper in Nature suggests that, per kilo of food produced, extensive farming causes greater greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, water use and nitrogen and phosphate pollution than intensive farming. If everyone ate pasture-fed meat, we would need several new planets on which to produce it.

Farmfree production promises a far more stable and reliable food supply that can be grown anywhere, even in countries without farmland. It could be crucial to ending world hunger. But there is a hitch: a clash between consumer and producer interests. Many millions of people, working in farming and food processing, will eventually lose their jobs. Because the new processes are so efficient, the employment they create won’t match the employment they destroy.

RethinkX envisages an extremely rapid “death spiral” in the livestock industry. Only a few components, such as the milk proteins casein and whey, need to be produced through fermentation for profit margins across an entire sector to collapse. Dairy farming in the United States, it claims, will be “all but bankrupt by 2030”. It believes that the American beef industry’s revenues will fall by 90% by 2035.

While I doubt the collapse will be quite that fast, in one respect the thinktank underestimates the scale of the transformation. It fails to mention the extraordinary shift taking place in feedstock production to produce alternatives to plant products, of the kind pioneered in Helsinki. This is likely to hit arable farming as hard as cultured milk and meat production will hit livestock farming. Solar Foods thinks its products could reach cost parity with the world’s cheapest form of protein (soya from South America) within five years. Instead of pumping ever more subsidies into a dying industry, governments should be investing in helping farmers into other forms of employment, while providing relief funds for those who will suddenly lose their livelihoods.

Another hazard is the potential concentration of the farmfree food industry. We should strongly oppose the patenting of key technologies, to ensure the widest possible distribution of ownership. If governments regulate this properly, they could break the hegemony of the massive companies that now control global food commodities. If they don’t, they could reinforce it. In this sector, as in all others, we need strong anti-trust laws. We must also ensure that the new foods always have lower carbon footprints than the old ones: farmfree producers should power their operations entirely from low-carbon sources. This is a time of momentous choices, and we should make them together.

We can’t afford to wait passively for technology to save us. Over the next few years we could lose almost everything, as magnificent habitats such as the rainforests of Madagascar, West Papua and Brazil are felled to produce cattle, soya or palm oil. By temporarily shifting towards a plant-based diet with the lowest possible impacts (no avocados or out-of-season asparagus), we can help buy the necessary time to save magnificent species and places while these new technologies mature. But farmfree food offers hope where hope was missing. We will soon be able to feed the world without devouring it.

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Is lab-grown meat the next frontier in ethical eating?

The meatless burger is surely one of the biggest food trends of 2019. The rising popularity of options like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burgers come as scientists implore consumers to switch to a more plant-based diet to help tackle climate change.

But there’s another option lurking on the horizon: lab-grown meat. Or, as scientists prefer to call it, “cultured” or “clean” meat. It has the potential to be better for both the environment and your health.

Amy Rowat, associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at University of California, Los Angeles, is one of six scientists who received a grant earlier this year from the Good Food Institute in Washington, D.C., to further develop cultured meat. 

Born and raised in Guelph, Ont., Rowat spent years studying cells and has years of academic experience in the science of food.

“All the food that we eat is made of cells,” Rowat said, so developing cultured meat was a natural fit. In the simplest terms, stem cells are taken from an animal’s muscle and put in a nutrient-rich broth, of sorts, to encourage them to multiply and grow into muscle fibres. So, it is real meat, but with one key difference: Animals don’t have to be raised or killed to produce it.

Rowat and her grad student, Stephanie Kawecki, determined that to produce one billion quarter-pounder burgers (113 grams each), it takes 1.2 million cows living for three years on 8,600 square kilometres of land (and then slaughtering them). The same number of cultured burgers would require the muscle stem cells of just one living cow, and they’d take only about a month and a half to grow. 

Right now, those cultured burgers would be pricey. The first lab-grown burger was produced in a Netherlands lab in 2013 at a cost of about $425,000 Cdn, although Israeli company Future Meat Technologies said last year it could bring the cost down into the range of $3.00 to $6.00 Cdn a pound (453 kg) by 2020. Rowat believes cultured meat will eventually be on par cost-wise with organic beef. 

Some believe it could be available in two to five years. But the pivotal question is: Will people eat it?

Lab-grown meat “is a foreign concept,” said Kara Nielsen, who analyzes food trends at CCD Innovation in Emeryville, Calif. But she sees a definite advantage. It will have the familiar taste and texture of farmed meat, and it’s a good alternative for people concerned with animal rights. “It certainly wins on you-didn’t-kill-a-cow-to-eat-this-burger,” she said. 

Another plausible selling point: it could be healthier than farmed beef. “Imagine modifying genetically the cellular components so that they produce healthier molecules in your cultured meat,” said Rowat. For example, to make a lower-fat meat, or one with more healthy fat.

On the environmental front, if people move away from farmed beef, there would be less need to clear cut land to raise cattle, and less methane from those gassy cows. 

recent Oxford University study, however, highlights a potential hurdle. It found that the amount of heat and electricity required to produce cultured meat could be worse, environmentally, than some cattle farming, if energy systems remain dependent on fossil fuels. 

The researchers suggested that to be more environmentally responsible, companies producing cultured meat would have to do something to mitigate carbon emissions. That could be crucial to cultured meat’s success. 

Nielsen said the potential positives may be what push people past any feelings of strangeness about eating lab-grown meat.

“It could be that we’ll leapfrog to an acceptance …  like, ‘You know what? I still want to eat my beef. And my beef just comes from a separate place.'” SOURCE

We can’t keep eating as we are – why isn’t the IPCC shouting this from the rooftops?

It’s a tragic missed opportunity. The new report on land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shies away from the big issues and fails to properly represent the science. As a result, it gives us few clues about how we might survive the century. Has it been nobbled? Was the fear of taking on the farming industry – alongside the oil and coal companies whose paid shills have attacked it so fiercely – too much to bear? At the moment, I have no idea. But what the panel has produced is pathetic.

The problem is that it concentrates on just one of the two ways of counting the carbon costs of farming. The first way – the IPCC’s approach – could be described as farming’s current account. How much greenhouse gas does driving tractors, spreading fertiliser and raising livestock produce every year? According to the panel’s report, the answer is around 23% of the planet-heating gases we currently produce. But this fails miserably to capture the overall impact of food production.

The second accounting method is more important. This could be described as the capital account: how does farming compare to the natural ecosystems that would otherwise have occupied the land? A paper published in Nature last year, but not mentioned by the IPCC, sought to count this cost. Please read these figures carefully. They could change your life.

The official carbon footprint of people in the UK is 5.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year. But in addition to this, the Nature paper estimates that the total greenhouse gas cost – in terms of lost opportunities for storing carbon that the land would offer were it not being farmed – of an average northern European diet is 9 tonnes a year. In other words, if we counted the “carbon opportunity costs” of our diet, our total footprint would almost triple, to 14.4 tonnes.

Why is this figure so high? Because we eat so much meat and dairy. The Nature paper estimates that the carbon cost of chicken is six times higher than soya, while milk is 15 times higher and beef 73 times. One kilo of beef protein has a carbon opportunity cost of 1,250kg: that, incredibly, is roughly equal to driving a new car for a year, or to one passenger flying from London to New York and back.

These are global average figures, raised by beef production in places like the Amazon basin. But even in the UK, the costs are astonishing. A paper in the journal Food Policy estimates that a kilo of beef protein reared on a British hill farm whose soils are rich in carbon has a cost of 643kg, while a kilo of lamb protein costs 749kg. Research published in April by the Harvard academics Helen Harwatt and Matthew Hayek, also missed by the IPCC, shows that, alongside millions of hectares of pasture land, an astonishing 55% of UK cropping land (land that is ploughed and seeded) is used to grow feed for livestock, rather than food for humans. If our grazing land was allowed to revert to natural ecosystems, and the land currently used to grow feed for livestock was used for grains, beans, fruit, nuts and vegetables for humans, this switch would allow the UK to absorb an astonishing quantity of carbon. This would be equivalent, altogether, the paper estimates, to absorbing nine years of our total current emissions. And farming in this country could then feed everyone, without the need for imports.

A plant-based diet would make the difference between the UK’s current failure to meet its international commitments, and success.

People tend to make two massive mistakes while trying to minimise the environmental impact of the food they eat. First, they focus on food miles and forget about the other impacts. For some foods, especially those that travel by plane, the carbon costs of transport are very high. But for most bulk commodities – grain, beans, meat and dairy – the greenhouse gases produced in transporting them are a small fraction of the overall impact. A kilo of soya shipped halfway round the world inflicts much less atmospheric harm than a kilo of chicken or pork reared on the farm down the lane.

The second mistake is to imagine that extensive farming is better for the planet than intensive farming. The current model of intensive farming tends to cause massive environmental damage: pollution, soil erosion and the elimination of wildlife. But extensive farming is worse: by definition, it requires more land to produce the same amount of food. This is land that could otherwise be devoted to ecosystems and wildlife. MORE

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Feeling helpless about climate change? There’s lots you can do

‘We can go on the offence’: A more positive way to look at climate action


(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

According to a recent survey of 14,000 respondents in 14 countries, people basically fall into four groupings when it comes to tackling climate change: “optimists,” “supporters,” “disempowered” and “skeptical.” The optimists and supporters generally feel they can have an impact and are doing their part to mitigate rising emissions and temperatures.

The disempowered, however, think it’s too late to stop the damage and feel, well, paralyzed. But Per Espen Stoknes, a psychologist who has also served as a member of Norway’s parliament, has ideas about how to change that.

Stoknes is the author of a 2015 book called What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, which focuses on the barriers that keep people from making change — and offers ideas to overcome them. Stoknes shared some of his insights with Stephanie Hogan via email.

What is it about climate change that makes people feel helpless?

The barrier of distance makes planetary-scale climate disruptions feel very far away. It is … remote in terms of space, time, impacts and responsibility, except for the relatively few people who are directly hit by wildfire, floods or droughts at any time.

The scale … and the invisibility of CO2 all contribute to the feeling of helplessness and the lack of self-efficacy to contribute real change with an impact. It makes many voters give climate disruption a low priority relative to immigration, unemployment, health issues, et cetera.

Does the way we talk about climate change make a difference?

Language is hugely important.

When communicating about climate, we should never accept the [negative] frames (doom, uncertainty, cost, sacrifice). There is no need to negate them, or repeat them or argue them in order to counter them.

Rather, we can go on the offence with our own framing: that more commercial and political action is needed right away to ensure safety for society, secure our health, be prepared for what comes and realize the amazing opportunities for jobs and better lives that the shifts in clean energy will bring.

What kind of action can help an individual feel more empowered?

Doing something together with others is the basic remedy. Many think of psychology as individualistic and assume that a psychology of climate solutions would be about what each of us as individuals can do separately, that we only get better one by one.

It is clear, however, that individual solutions are not sufficient to solving climate alone. But they do build stronger bottom-up support for policies and solutions that can. Our personal impact on others is much more valuable in giving momentum to the change of society than the number of [kilograms] of CO2 each action generates. It works like rings in water: If I see someone else that I respect taking action, then I want to as well. Enthusiasm is contagious. That is why engaging together with other people is so crucial.

How do you take that action further?

Organize, organize, organize. The key is to make climate disruption into a social issue by taking action together with others. Start a local chapter of Climate Citizens Lobby or 350.org and make it visible to let your neighbours, friends and colleagues see that you are taking action with solar panels on the roof, electric mobility and/or a more plant-based diet. The largest cuts in climate emissions — from solutions in agriculture to buildings to mobility — can be addressed when thousands of people start taking action together. The Drawdown.org project gives a wonderful and inspiring overview of all the solutions. SOURCE