Meet Paul Behrens, Associate Professor at Leiden University and author of ‘The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Futures from the Frontiers of Climate Science.’ Dive into his pioneering research that uncovers the impact of food systems on climate, health, and the environment. Explore how plant-based diets can have profound benefits, from reducing emissions to promoting resilience against climate change. Discover the potential of dietary shifts for planetary and human health.
Which wall does your research break?
Our research breaks the wall to a new vision for our food system. We do this by investigating the opportunities of food system transformation, not only to reduce environmental harms but also to improve human health and resilience to climate change. To give an example, we investigated the opportunity for sparing land from a shift in diets across high-income nations. We found that you would save a huge amount of land – around the size of the EU. If we were able to revert the saved land to natural vegetation you would double the benefit of the emission reductions from the diet alone – and just imagine the nature parks, forests, and natural grasslands. These parks, forests, and grasslands would drawdown large amounts of carbon and help biodiversity recover, they would also be more resilient against extreme weather events driven by climate change (consider the floodwater retention of forests compared to pasture where soils are often compacted). So, these dietary shifts would not only reduce the level of climate change itself, but also help us cope with the blows of climatic change. These changes would also reduce air and water pollution, lower the risk of antimicrobial resistance, reduce zoonotic disease risk, and much more. Vitally, these dietary shifts represent diets that are better for not only planetary health but for planetary health, too. They would reduce the health burden of poor diets across high-income nations, reducing non-communicable diseases and improving human wellbeing.
What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?
Even if we make a full, timely shift to a decarbonised energy system, if we don’t transform the current food system, that on its own is enough to blow climate targets of 1.5 and even 2 degrees. Modelling suggests that we need a Great Food Transformation: a shift to plant-based diets, reductions in food waste, and improvements in food production. However, shifting to plant-based diets makes up by far the biggest opportunity. Indeed, plant-based diets may be increasingly necessary as climate impacts on food systems makes animal products increasingly expensive. However, plant-based diets are not ‘just’ needed to avoid further climatic damage, there are so many exciting opportunities as described above. By making a food transformation we not only just ‘survive’ the many environmental crises of the 21st century but we might thrive via improved human health and increased resilience to environmental damage such as extreme weather events. I find this truly inspirational as a hopeful vision of the future that avoids some truly catastrophic outcomes. In my view, plant-based diets are not a story of abstinence from animal products but a story of exploration. We only eat a handful of different plants each week, but we know there are well over 10,000 edible plants that we could cook with and enjoy. What makes these transformations even more fascinating from a social science perspective is how we might help farmers and consumers transition to these futures, redirecting subsidies and giving people options to transition to sustainably beneficial practices. We can also investigate the social outcomes in terms of mental and physical health benefits of having more land available for natural parks and recreation.
In what ways does society benefit from your research?
There is still a lack of understanding that food systems are causing such large environmental problems, especially among policymakers. Surveys show that many people don’t link food systems to issues like biodiversity loss – despite it being by far the largest driver. We need to communicate our research and find ways to ‘get in the room’ where policy decisions are being made to 1) Encourage dietary change. 2) Join up food, health, environment, and land policy. And 3) Encourage high-income nations especially to make this change. For example, the UK is one of the most naturally degraded nations in the world, we can address so many issues with a new contract that frees land, protects biodiversity, and works with nation to drawdown carbon from the atmosphere. Our work has been used at various levels to help society benefit, from NGOs using it to argue for a joined-up policy to protect nature and address climate change, to policymakers using it as a new vision for sustainable, climate resilient landscapes and land policy.
Looking ahead, what are your hopes or aspirations for the future based on your research or project?
Our aspiration for future work is to assess the various environmental, health, and social impacts of rapid food transitions. This includes investigating how we might ease the transition for farmers via shifting subsidies, giving different options, and rewarding beneficial activities. We want to be able to facilitate change. At the same time, we hope to continue work on how food transformations may improve resilience in a harsher climate with increasing biodiversity loss. Further, we hope to improve our understanding of other environmental and health opportunities of these transitions, for instance in terms of antimicrobial resistance.