Climate Change


Climate Podcast: How can we eat our way to a better planet?

Welcome to Generation One: The Climate Podcast. In the first episode of season two, our hosts are discussing plant based diets addressing the question: How can we eat our way to a better planet? Helen is joined by Tim Van Berkel, Co-Founder of Cornish Seaweed Company, Prof Tim Lang, emeritus professor at London City University and Dr Carole Dahlin from UCL's Institute of Sustainable Resources. Listen now as they get in to the benefits and downfalls of plant based diets, the popularity of superfoods and whether seaweed can become a staple in our diets, and discuss how we can eat our way to a better plant.


We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.

Tim Lang  0:08  
Veganism these days basks in sort of saintly, holiness. 

Tim Van Berkel  0:14  
Seaweed, why would I want to eat that and it's disgusting. It's rotting, rotting on the beaches. 

Carol Dalin  0:18  
It's not like a diet where you're trying to lose weight and it's not working. Every time you choose not to eat meat, it's will have an impact.

UCL Minds  0:29  
This is generation one from University College London, turning climate science and ideas into action.

Helen Czerski  0:37  
Hello, and welcome to series two of Generation One. I'm Helen Czerski. I'm a physicist and oceanographer here at UCL. And it is fantastic to be back for another series of podcasts, we're going to be exploring all kinds of different issues relating to the environment and climate change. And of course, we will be talking to some of the brightest and best and most interesting people from UCL and beyond. Speaking of which, I'm very pleased to be joined by my co hosts, Professor Mark Maslin. He's a specialist in climate change in UCL Department of Geography. Mark, it's nice to be back what's been going on since we were last here.

Mark Maslin  1:14  
I have to say, it is so nice to be back on the podcast. And I'm really glad that we're doing the second series. But it's been an amazing start to the year. So we've had the IPCC mitigation report that came out, which was really hard hitting, it basically said, we must cut our emissions by 43%. In the next eight years, if we're going to have any chance to get to 1.5 degrees. Everybody thought it was a very depressing report, except when you look into it has so many solutions, both for transport, energy, building food, all the things we're going to be discussing on this series, all will be good for the planet and good for the people. If politicians listen.

Helen Czerski  1:56  
I think it's a general theme on this, isn't it? If only everybody listened to us, it will be fine. But I mean, it has I think it's been a really interesting couple of months. And actually, for a very serious reason, which is that the events in Ukraine have actually sparked a lot of discussion about where things come from. I mean, this series of events in the past few years have really highlighted infrastructure, like things that come to us and things that we send to other people that we've always taken for granted. And suddenly, it's all been laid bare, hasn't it? Like you can suddenly people saying, Oh, well, where does our gas come from? Where does our food come from? And actually, there's, there's it feels like there's more debate about those things, and there ever has been, I find it really deeply upsetting that experts, like yourself, have been talking about energy security to politicians for the last two decades. But it takes a pointless war, where 1000s of innocents are being slaughtered, to realise that actually, we get our gas from Russia, and we get our oil from different countries who have questionable sort of histories on human rights. And I think this is an interesting position in geopolitics because already we're seeing the EU, the EU are now accelerating their renewable programme, not because of climate change, to escape their reliance on Russian natural gas. Well, it really does highlight how, you know, this is this is a podcast about climate change. But we can't the scope, geopolitics, and health and justice, these are all folded in. But we have lots of these topics to be covered in the episodes in the second series. We're talking about apps and Gender and Disaster Mitigation, and cycling and bees. If you've ever wanted to know about bees, we will have a podcast for you. So all of that is coming up in future episodes in this series. But it is time to get on with this episode. And our topic today is plant based food. Now just before we get into that, I want to remind you how you can take part in the podcast, we have a website, which is ucl.ac.uk, forward slash climate, hyphen, change. And there's all kinds of news and research and lots of different things you can get involved in there. Do rate and subscribe to the podcasts. We very much appreciate your feedback, and especially your positive feedback, and do and do share it with your networks. And of course, we're on Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag UCL at generation one. So you can comment and discuss things there. And of course, there is always email and if you'd like to email us, it's podcasts with an s@ucl.ac.uk. So if you want to send a message, we'd really love to hear from you. And if you have a question or a comment, do send a voice message if you can, and we'll include it in the podcast if we can fit it in.

UCL Minds  4:33  
You're listening to UCL generation one, turning science and ideas into climate action.

Helen Czerski  4:42  
So it's time to get into today's topic, which is plant based food. Now, I sometimes think that one of the reasons climate action doesn't get more press is that it often seems so mundane. You know, there's all these people talking about shiny robots and fancy genetics, and perhaps it's a little bit harder to follow. our attention on the really basic grass root things that do often matter quite a lot more. Now I find the grassroots stuff really interesting because I think they're things we can all get involved in directly. We can't all have a shiny robot, but we can all make decisions about what we eat. So we're starting this series with the most mundane topic of all, what should we feed ourselves. And we've got particular focus on plant based diets. And I have to declare an interest here. I've been a vegetarian all my life and my diet now is almost entirely plant based. But what has been interesting is watching people's attitudes to that change over my lifetime. Now we've got three fabulous guests today to discuss all of this, we have Professor Tim Lang, who's an emeritus professor of food policy at City University in London, Tim Van Berkel, who is the Managing Director and co founder of the Cornish seaweed company, and Dr. Carol Dalin, an associate professor in sustainable food systems here at UCL. And I want to start with Tim Lang, could you just summarise? Why is it that plant based diets have suddenly become part of the climate debate? Because no one was really talking about that five years ago, and suddenly, it's everywhere. What happened?

Tim Lang  6:07  
Well we were talking about it, actually, but we were talking about it we academics to ourselves, what's happened is it's gone public, and for pretty good reasons, really, the evidence about the impact of animal production. And therefore, meat, meat, and dairy has become overwhelming on greenhouse gas emissions on biodiversity loss, the driving of land use to produce grain to then feed animals, and soya and things like that. But also embedded water in foods, land use, basically. But also it's a double dose of evidence, because it's not just the ecosystems evidence, but also the public health evidence. So in that sense, the publicity that you're raising Helen about plant based diets, is a rare example of where academic data has actually informed public discourse. 

Helen Czerski  6:57  
And could you just summarise for us, you know, some of that data, you know, what is the difference that a plant based diet makes? 

Tim Lang  7:02  
Oh, it's absolutely massive. The reduction of land use if you switch to a plant based diet is significant, the reduction of greenhouse gases goes down, the more you get towards a vegan diet. That's not to say vegan diets are perfect. They have lots of problems in other respects. But the evidence on both embedded water on land use on biodiversity impacts on public health, nutrition is very, very good indeed. Because essentially, what's happened, and I'm sure colleagues would agree on this, is that over the last 70 years, as economists have got richer, they tend to trade up and not just extend the range of foods that they eat, but they change the types of foods they eat, and they start eating Festival Foods every day. And festival food number one is meat. And that's part of the complexity, we academics, revel in complexity. But then it becomes very hard to translate and a rarity is translating it down to plant based diets are broadly good news for lots of lots of reasons. 

Helen Czerski  8:11  
Well, we will come back to some of those details. But now I want to come to Tim Van Berkel because Tim, you work on something, which isn't it's one of those food types that we don't think about very much. So give us your spiel for seaweed.

Tim Van Berkel  8:24  
The podcast needs to be a bit longer, I think to give all the good benefits that CBD can bring. But we talk about food here, of course, and seaweed contains high amounts of a lot of trace elements, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, you name it, but it's also high protein. So in a way, seaweed can be that kind of plant based resource that can substitute meat for the reasons that we eat it apart from the fact that people like eating meat, it's texture and all that maybe that's something that seems not so good. 

Helen Czerski  8:57  
Well, perhaps describe what the Cornish seaweed company does and how it got started. 

Tim Van Berkel  9:02  
We started about 10 years ago, me and my, my friend Kara Evans started harvesting seaweed, because we love to live near the ocean. We love to live near Cornwall, and we both wanted to make a living down here. And then Carol heard the BBC Four programme farming today, which talked about health benefits and nutritional benefits, but also the environmental benefits of seaweeds. And we thought, well wait a second. It's a big industry, in Scotland, in Ireland in the Far East. But in England, we're not really doing anything about it. So it kind of makes sense. Like, why don't we just do something with it, and see if we can make a job living out of it. Now we're 10 years down the line. And we have started the first seaweed farm because we realise that harvesting seaweed from the wild would kind of limit us because there's not enough seaweed out there basically, to harvest it to meet demand, which is growing exponentially, it seems. So we thought, well, we have to find new ways of harvesting of getting the seaweed to people's plates in a sustainable way. So farming was the way to go. 

Helen Czerski  10:12  
Well, we will come back to that. But I want to introduce Carol here. And, and Carol, one of the things when we're talking about diets and the environment is knowing what the effects are, you know, it because it most of the time when most of us buy food, you know, we go into a supermarket or you know, some kind of shop, and there's a thing on the shelf. And we, you know, we don't know where it came from, and we don't know what you know, all the things that led up to it being on that shelf. So how, how easy is it to know what effect the foods that we eat are having on the environment? 

Carol Dalin  10:44  
That's that's a great question. And you said where it's coming from. And that's often something that we we cannot find even when we are asking supermarkets. So and that's something that will be essential, I think in the future so that the consumer as we can make more informed choices, because we hear you know, and it's true, there are some general principles that we can follow without knowing too much information that we can, we should choose more plant based diet rather than meat, that will always reduce the environmental impacts. But then there are also plant based foods that have a big impact on water use, for example, or biodiversity deforestation. So I think in the future, we need to include those information and trace much more how the food was made, and where it's from, to make sure it has the minimum environmental impact. 

Helen Czerski  11:38  
It sounds simple. But that also sounds very complicated. You know, it sounds as though you could sticker you know, a colour code or a number or something on a packet. But how hard is it to work out those impacts. 

Carol Dalin  11:50  
So the impact themselves, we are getting really better and better data as time goes on. And I think you know, with with satellite based imagery, we can get a lot of information on the use of different resources. So I think if we know the origin, or at least the country of origin, it would be even better to know where indeed, in this country, it was grown. But already the country information would give us a lot of, of detail. But the challenge, you know, you said the colour code. And I think, you know, we went through the same debates with nutritional information, there are a lot of different things to put together. So as Tim Lang was saying, there's the biodiversity loss, the climate change. So greenhouse gas emissions, the use of water. So it's not obvious how to combine those indicators into one. But I think that's, that's something that we need to work on. 

Helen Czerski  12:40  
It strikes me as reminding me this discussion of a book that was published many years ago now called The Omnivore's Dilemma, and basically, I think the title says it all the problem is that as organisms, we are capable of eating very many things. You know, we're not like a cow, which can just eat grass, right? There are lots of things aren't in our environment, which we can eat. And the problem is choosing, you know, makes all this much more complicated. Tim, like, how are we doing with food policy? How do decisions get made about what we eat? Is it is it that consumers really choose? Or is it pushed by for, you know, political reasons? How do we work out what to eat? 

Tim Lang  13:16  
Basically, I'm going to be infuriatingly academic and say, well, it's complex, Helen, that but that's the truth. 

Helen Czerski  13:23  
We wouldn't have had you on the podcast otherwise. 

Tim Lang  13:26  
What do we academics love but wallowing in complexity. But the truth is consumers wallow in complexity, without knowing it. They use multiple criteria when they're buying foods. And what we're dealing with now in policy is how to take this complexity and translate it into if not complex solutions, but that needs more simplified complex solutions. So there is a difficulty for policymakers of how to deal with the realities that their voters that constituents, their supporters, the political parties, their supporters, what they want. And unpicking that is actually quite tricky. I have some sympathy for policymakers. We academics have long time horizons, they have very short time horizons, consumers have very immediate time horizons. They want food now and they want it all the time. But the good news is we're beginning to get some clarity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, I think, has been very good at injecting complex policymaking into the simple issue, the one issue of greenhouse gas and say, We're here are the multiple things that you've got to do. The politicians just want to do one thing. In fact, the only way we're going to address the quadruple whammy of of climate and, and food is by having multiple interventions.

Helen Czerski  14:58  
Well, I want to contrast that because I mean, you bring up the complexity and it's an it's a, it's an important issue. But I also think that there are people like Tim Van Berkel on the ground, you know, and Tim-Seaweed-Tim and now this is sorry to call you that. I'm sure you've been called it before. But but from your point of view, you're sort of at the other end of this is that you're almost trying to introduce a new food, you know, in this country, you know, the Welsh have had some history of eating seaweed, some parts of Essex have, but most of England certainly doesn't have a culture of eating seaweed. And so you're, you're in the position of almost bringing in a new food, you know, these these consumers, they've got all this other choice, and it's all complicated, and then you turn up with another. And I was just wondering what what's it like to introduce a new food? What kind of reactions do you get? 

Tim Van Berkel  15:42  
To be honest, is was very difficult to start with? Especially, you have to start from scratch and especially with seaweed, I think seaweed, the name already implies, you know, it hasn't been tested with word weed in it, which is not very positive start with. So we had to really start changing people's perceptions about it is when we started the business, for instance, we set up stores and food markets, and people would just walk past and say seaweed. Why would I want to eat that and it's disgusting. It's rotting, rotting on the beaches, it's things I don't want to eat that you really need to educate people and show people what seaweed can do all the health benefits and nutritional benefits and the environmental benefits, but also taste, of course. So it was really a long educational process that we had to go through. And that kind of that worked a little bit. But what kind of there was a shift a few years down the line when we start from when we started. And that's when kind of famous chefs started to click onto it as well. And people like Jamie Oliver started using seaweed, and all of a sudden, it became cool to use it and to eat it. And the media started picking up on it because it became this environmental champion and this nutritional powerhouse became kind of a superfood on in all different aspects. And that kind of made it take off. So we really seen that really that shift from something that people would not even dare touch with a bargepole to, yes, give me that I want it. I know it's good. For me, it's good for the environment. And it makes me cool as well to eat it. 

Helen Czerski  17:16  
Well, that's um, so I can say when I was on the beach in Cornwall with Tim, he gave me some seaweed to eat and it was like tangy lettuce. Actually, I quite liked it. It was one of the little red ones I think you gave me but it was a it didn't taste like I thought seaweed would taste and I know that sounds really stupid. But I was you know, it was it was like a nice salad. So I was really impressed. But I was interested in that. So that thing what you're what you're talking about is incentives, basically. So we've got a health incentive, there's an environmental incentive is a cool incentive. And it sounds as though actually it's the cool incentive that made the biggest difference is is that is that does that just get people hooked? But then they stay for other reasons? Or do they just want to be cool? 

Tim Van Berkel  17:56  
No, I think so. There's definitely part some people who would think would eat seaweed for the coolness factor. But I think what you'll see with those is that part of your customer base will tail off very quickly. But what stays is people really believe in the product. So they don't do it for the coolness factor. They they know it's beneficial for their health, they know it's beneficial for the environment. And so they stick with it, and they kind of get used to it. So they regularly eat it. And it becomes part of their daily, their daily nutrition, really. So those are the people kind of that seem to be growing because we can't get enough seaweed harvested. Everything is sold basically that we harvested yesterday, it's sold the day the day after. 

Helen Czerski  18:39  
So there's a lot of demand. Well, that I mean, that shows we can change our eating habits, I guess, which is which is an encouraging thing. And Carol, I'm curious about global food production, because we're talking or you know, the sort of context for this is that we live in one country that does things one way. But there's also global food systems, how do we do in this country when it comes to plant based food and sustainable eating? And how does that compare with the rest of the globe. 

Carol Dalin  19:04  
So in the UK, and that's the same for a lot of your other European countries and other developed countries in Asia and America. We don't have a sustainable diet, mostly because we eat too much animal products. So too much meat and dairy. But you're talking about global food systems. And that's something that we we work on a lot because the UK is one of the countries in the world that imports a lot of its food supply, unlike some other countries. So it's not just about how we are farming in the UK, but it's also how our trade partners are farming and what we import from from abroad. So this is this is tricky for policy because you know, they tend to think about just what happens within the borders of the UK for example, and not so much how to control imports. Although you know, now we have Brexit we talk a lot about trade policy, how to avoid, but we're thinking more about how to protect the local farmers and not necessarily how to try to minimise the environmental damage overall. So yeah, I think it's important to think not just about each end like not just about the diets of people to change their diet, or not just about farming, like farmers have to just stop farming livestock and switch to other things. We have to think about all these links as well in the systems and how we can influence and basically promote those shifts towards more sustainable food systems. 

Helen Czerski  20:36  
So I want to come back to plant based diets specifically, Tim Lang. And I want I'm curious about the biggest misconceptions about plant based diets. I've been vegetarian all my life. I'm mostly vegan now. And I've seen an amazing change in public attitudes towards vegetarianism and veganism even just dinners without meeting them, actually. And I was just wondering about the the misconceptions about plant based diets. What are the things people worry about that perhaps they shouldn't worry about? And maybe what other things they worry about that perhaps they should if they're thinking about switching to a plant based diet could just be?

Tim Lang  21:11  
 That's a big question, Helen, we could talk for about 10 days about that. The world of food is filled with misconceptions. And that's the nightmare but also the charm of academia, we try and help sort that out. Well, let me be really so difficult. Veganism has sometimes these days basks in sort of saintly holiness. Actually, vegans are main drivers of soya use and that's very problematic for a country like Britain. And we've got to think through what is a sustainable diet, ie a low impact on ecosystems, high impact on health affordable, etc. What's a sustainable diet look like in different parts of the world. But there are some misconceptions ahead, Helen, not just the misconceptions from the past. I think that goes back to a common theme across all three of us, Tim seaweed, Carol and myself, Tim policy, which is that this is a complex world, and there are ways through it, to address what we know we've done to the food system to the planet to public health, to culture. And we haven't got much time to sort it out. Actually, if the truth be known. The ecosystems are really stressed, the public health damage is really stress from shifts in diet. So we've got to actually narrow the gap between what's going on in production and processing and what's going on in consumption with what the data say we should be doing. It's possible to change diets. You're quite right. I think all three of us would agree on that. But the issue is, at the moment, no policy bodies are really getting a grip of that what you're getting is recommendations on from an inquiry about X, for what to do about x. But the problem is food is A to Zed. The critical issue, I think, is to get a grip of consumers. The elephant in the room is consumption. 

Helen Czerski  23:26  
So one of the things I hear in what you're saying is that we talk about a plant based diet as though that's one thing. And actually, there are lots of plants, right? There are lots of different ways of taking, you know, taking in nutrition, what different types of plant based diets? 

Tim Lang  23:42  
Well, the answer is lots. I mean, the good thing, ever the optimist, despite the evidence, I'm an optimist, I will say, and the evidence is terrible, mostly. But there are things emerging, it is really good that the vegan movement is having these sorts of debates. It's terrific the vegetarian movement, the same, I think the mass public is beginning to have a debate, there are shifts going on. The problem is they're not fast enough. And there is a mismatch between production and consumption. I get it.

Helen Czerski  24:15  
 I'm gonna interrupt you there. So I've got a very quick question for Seaweed Tim. And then another question for Carol. We are running out of time horribly, quickly here. Does seaweed have the potential to be scaled up and still be sustainable?

Tim Van Berkel  24:27  
 It can definitely be scaled up. There's a lot of ocean around there that we can farm without having a detrimental impact on the environment, especially when we compare it to land based farming. 

Helen Czerski  24:38  
That was a very succinct reply. Thank you, Carol. Carol, just finally I mean, do you think we're going in the right direction on all of this what do you see when you look ahead? Are we trying to do the right things and and what can we do as individuals?

Carol Dalin  24:53  
 So actually this question, what can we do? I think people are asking themselves more and more which is good because I feel like you know, there is some, sometimes pessimism about what, you know, people willingness to change their behaviour for the greater good. But I think still overall, there is some some hope in that direction. And actually food is one of the big levers that people can, when they have the choice, make a choice that will help them and the planet. And so if we inform them, and we, as you know, Tim Lang said, the policy and the environment changes so that people know what is best for them best for the planet, they might not always choose it, but I think there will be a shift. And also something about misconception is that everyone needs to go vegan, I think that's not what we are saying. And every meal where you avoid to eat meat is going to have an impact. It's not like a diet where you're trying to lose weight, and it's not working every time you choose not to eat meat, it's will have an impact. So it's not black and white, and everybody can play we're on.

Tim Lang  26:03  
Consumers need help to do the great transition that Carol is talking about. And that's what they're not getting study after study shows that consumers when they're given all the kind of information that we academics produce, they say, why aren't we told this? They don't get this? They don't get this. So the critical issue has to be how can we get not just business to do this. But government's to pull the whole thing together to change the infrastructure to invest in different ways to generate and support consumers in the culture shift? It's possible to do it. But at the moment, no government is really giving it the priority it ought to.

Helen Czerski  26:49  
Okay, well, we are out of time. So sadly, we're going to have to finish there. Thank you all very much. So many different perspectives. Lots of different ideas. And thank you very much for your time, and a lot of agreement, a lot of agreement. Thank you. Very nice to meet you, Carol and Tim's you, thank you.

UCL Minds  27:06  
You're listening to UCL generation one, turning science and ideas into climate action.

Helen Czerski  27:13  
We're just about to get marks roundup of all the climate news stories that you need to know about this week. But just before that, just want to spend a moment to encourage you to get involved in the podcast and UCL climate work. You can find all about that@ucl.ac.uk forward slash climate hyphen change, so you can write and subscribe to the podcast. We'd love it. If you do that. Do send us some feedback. Send us comments and questions to the email address podcasts@ucl.ac.uk and do connect to us on Twitter and Instagram. But now it's time to join Mark Maslin for the climate news roundup.

Mark Maslin  27:54  
This is the generation one weekly roundup of climate news. Top of the news is, of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its effect it has had on global energy prices. The EU has announced its tripling its renewable energy installation for the next decade to increase energy security. As of course you have many people's domestic energy costs have doubled, but so have the energy companies profit BPS profits more than doubled to $5 billion in the first three months of this year, the highest quarterly profit in more than a decade. Many experts are calling on the UK Government to limit price rises, and if not, then consider a windfall tax on the oil and gas companies. In other news Grammy Award winning singer Billy Eilish has announced she will be performing at a major multi day climate change event called overheated in London's otoo Arena in June. Eilish has made many public statements in support of climate action. Finally to China. Analysis by the carbon brief shows that China plans to add at least 570 gigawatts of wind and solar power more than doubling its installation capacity in just five years. This would put China on track to peak its emissions between 2025 and 2030. sufficient to meet its country's international commitments, but only if the economy stays relatively low like today, but much more will be needed if they are to achieve net zero by 2060 As announced at COP 26.

Helen Czerski  29:48  
That's it for this episode of generation one from UCL turning climate science and ideas into action. do get in touch if you've got a question or you'd like to suggest a guest for the podcast. You can find us on email and Instagram and Twitter. Do have a look at the UCL climate website. There's loads of stuff on there. And you keep following this podcast and raters if you can. I'm Helen Czerski. And the next edition of generation one from UCL will be available next Wednesday, and Mark and his guests will be considering the impact of gender issues on the environment and climate change. But that's all for this week. Goodbye.