Why we need a plant-based food system

Watch a replay of Rohini Bajekal speaking about the link between zoonotic disease and pandemics and benefits of plant-based diet for human health and planetary health on facebook.

Read her speech below:

My name is Rohini Bajekal and I’m a nutritionist representing Plant-Based Based Health Professionals UK – a group of doctors, nurses, dieticians and nutritionists who are dedicated to promoting a plant-based diet. We are here to support the call for an urgent transition to a plant-based food system. This is essential for the health of humans, non-human animals and the future of our planet.

Animal agriculture and the food we eat is inextricably linked to zoonotic diseases. 3 in 4 emerging infectious diseases now come from animals, from transmission from the wildlife trade and factory farms. Whether its swine flu in pigs, avian flu in birds or SARS originating in civets, the underlying theme is the same. Our exploitation of animals and our destruction of their wild habitats has brought us into closer contact than ever before, thereby increasing the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.

Unfortunately, the xenophobic coverage of Chinese wet markets has distracted from the main issue at hand. Our insatiable demand for meat in places like the UK is what actually poses the deadliest threat. Factory farming has been described as a “a perfect storm environment” for infectious diseases with poultry farms a “ticking time bomb”. We need to protect slaughterhouse workers who are always from poorer, marginalised groups who have suffered the brunt of unnecessary COVID outbreaks due to the nature of their work. The frequent and widespread use of antibiotics on farm animals has also contributed to a huge rise in the number of antibiotic-resistant infections which endanger human lives. The UN has already warned that an extra 10 million people may die by 2050 as a result of antibiotic resistance. that are completely preventable. It’s now not a question of if there’ll be yet another pandemic, it’s a question of when.

This is why we need action, and we need it quickly. The UK government needs to stop funding and subsidising intensive animal farming both in the UK and globally in the midst of the current pandemic. We need to challenge them. Why are they continuing to subsidise cow’s milk in schools when there are healthier and more sustainable plant-based alternatives? Why are they funding livestock farms around the world during a climate crisis? In the UK, 70% of farmland is used for livestock farming, whilst we import more than 80% of our fruits and vegetables, the foods that are necessary for good health. We urgently need to improve access to healthy plant-based foods and make them affordable to all. We need a plant-based food system.

The ways in which this could benefit our health are immeasurable. The Covid-19 pandemic, one of the worst we have seen in generations, has already further strained the NHS. It has been particularly disastrous for those of lower socioeconomic means and communities of colour. Our healthcare system struggles to cope on a daily basis with the burden of chronic disease, the majority of which could be addressed by changing diet and lifestyle. Killing animals is killing us too. And for what? Major dietetic organisations around the world including the British Dietetic Association all state that a plant-based diet can meet nutritional requirements at all stages of life- from birth to old age. It is one of the healthiest choices you can make. A healthy plant-based diet reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by 25%, certain cancers by around 15% and type 2 diabetes by at least 50%. These foods also honour compassion for animals, and the future of our planet.

There are so many plant-based protein alternatives to choose from. Our diets should be centred around whole plant foods that promote health such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Love the taste of animal products? Innovation in food tech has made delicious plant-based meat and dairy alternatives without the need for slaughterhouses or immense drain on resources. But it’s time for policymakers to stop disingenuously placing the burden entirely for change entirely on individuals. There is now global consensus that to sustain both human and planetary health, we must all shift to a plant-based food system. The time is now.