In Conversation With… Vaclav Smil

Professor Vaclav Smil has made a career of digging into the numbers behind sustainable development and environmental challenges. Holding the post of Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, Canada, Smil is also a member of the Order of Canada and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and has the singular distinction of being known as Bill Gates’ favourite author. His prolific research career has yielded 40 books and nearly 500 articles on sustainable topics. 

Among them is his 2013 monograph Should We Eat Meat?, which examined the maths behind how our diets and agricultural practices impact the planet in an attempt to answer the eponymous question. In it, he argues for a dietary shift towards ‘rational meat eating’: significantly reduced per-capita consumption matched with more efficient and sustainable agricultural production.

We reached out to Professor Smil to talk about the challenges of food system change, the effects of COVID-19 on meat prices, and what we as consumers can — and can’t — do to push for a more sustainable food system.

Should We Eat Meat? was published in 2013. How have agriculture and consumption changed since then? Have there been any steps in the right direction? 

Very little, these are mass-scale, embedded, highly inertial endeavors and habits that do change significantly only across decades and generations, not in just a few years.

How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will affect agriculture and its environmental impact?

It [has already] made everything more expensive, some items substantially so, and prices have [a] tendency to stay even after a crisis passes. Most likely, we will be paying more for food during the 2020s than we would have [paid] without the virus. 

In the last chapter of Should We Eat Meat? you mention that nothing about our current system of meat production is inevitable: you call it “malpractices committed as a part of our short-sighted quest for maximised meat output at minimised cost.” But what will it take to get legislation and/or business to shift away from short-sighted practices? 

Much higher food prices, and hence much lower food waste and more rational food production. 

Will rising food prices after COVID help with this? Has the price of meat risen as well? 

Actually meat has not seen rapid rises, the obvious reason being the loss of restaurant and tourism meals, and when you have so many animals in the production pipeline, only chicks, with less than two months to sale are easy to stop. Pork is six months, beef around two years and [when you] suddenly lose a large chunk of the market, you lower prices.¹

I do not see any long-lasting effect on meat eating: there [was] none after the 1957-1958 and 1968-1970 or 2009 pandemics.

You frequently dive deep into differences between affluent and low-income countries. Do you think a reduction in meat consumption is viable for the majority of the global population across socioeconomic lines? 

Inequalities of all kinds immensely complicate any effort at across-the-board reforms/rationalisations, and they are the most difficult challenge to solve. I do not offer any hope for rapid, extensive improvements.

Alas, nothing modern civilisation does is truly sustainable; the economies are based on incessant mass-scale consumption of fossil energies and materials (whose production requires large energy inputs). Agriculture, with its heavy reliance on field machinery, diesel and gasoline, synthetic fertilisers and other agrochemicals is a prime example of this dependence.

Is there anything consumers can do, besides cutting down their individual meat consumption, to push for change in food production practices?

Eat meat in moderation (20 kg/year/capita is plenty), cook at home, reduce food waste to almost nothing.

How much of an effect would reducing household waste have, since a lot of food waste happens at other points in the production chain? 

Of course, the waste is all along the chain but an individual consumer cannot, for example, change the way veggies or fruits are thrown away before retailing by producers because of blemishes or crooked shapes or damaged parts: and would people actually rush to buy such produce?

¹ Editor’s note: For more detail, see this assessment from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and this analysis from the European Commission (see the download link at the bottom of the page for a more detailed analysis).

Portrait by Olibroman via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo by Carly Reeves on Unsplash

Peer review declaration: This article is an interview. We do not put interviews through peer review, as they are by nature statements of opinion.

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