Food is one of life’s constants. Yet, what we eat has major ramifications on global climate. Food production uses up major resources: it accounts for more than 70% of total freshwater use, over one-third of land use, and accounts for just shy of 25% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, of which 80% is livestock. Yes, that steak you just ate has had a direct impact on the world’s climate! There is something of an oxymoron in the world’s food ecosystems. Overconsumption is linked to major health problems like obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers that together account for up to 71% of global deaths. On the other hand, there are around one billion people in the world who suffer from hunger and underconsumption. All of this is compounded by problems of food loss and waste. This raises important questions related to the ethics of worldwide food production and distribution.
Food production and consumption is determined by many factors: population numbers, incomes, globalisation, sex (biology), and gender (socio-cultural) differences. The combination of a sedentary lifestyle and an unbalanced diet, high in red, processed meat, low in fruits and vegetables, is a common problem in many developed countries. And this impacts not just human health, but also biodiversity and ecosystems.
Supervised by Prof Simone Borg, I chose an exploratory research design with embedded case studies. The aim was to analyse the dietary patterns of men and women. I wanted to critically question the power relations that feed into socio-economic inequities and lead to particular food choices. I used both quantitative and qualitative methods, modelling the life cycle assessment and scenario emission projections for 2050 in Malta, Brazil, Australia, India, and Zambia among males and females aged 16 to 64.
The four dietary scenarios I took into consideration were present-day consumption patterns (referring to the 2005/7 Food and Agriculture reference scenario), the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended diet (300g of meat per week and five portions per day of fruit and veg), vegetarian/mediterranean/pescatarian diets, and the vegan diet. From there, I measured ammonia emissions, land use, and water from cradle to farm gate, with a special focus on gender.
The findings were alarming, indicating that none of the five countries are able to meet emissions reductions under current dietary patterns. If we were to adopt the WHO recommended diet, GHGEs would be cut by 31.2%. A better result would be gained from a vegetarian diet, which would slash emissions by 66%, while a vegan diet comes out on top with a projected 74% reduction.
Some interesting points that arose were that the Global Warming Potential is higher in men in all countries due to higher meat consumption. Zambia and India would benefit the most from the proposed dietary shifts in absolute terms, while Australia, Malta, and Brazil would feel the positive impacts on individual levels in per capita terms, reducing carbon footprints considerably.
Reduced meat consumption substantially lowers dietary GHG emissions. We need to prospectively consider the interplay of sex and gender, and develop climate change, health, and microeconomic policies for effective intervention and sustainable diets. Adopting a flexitarian diet that is mostly fruits and vegetables, with the occasional consumption of meat, can save lives, the planet, and economies—some food for thought!
This research was carried out as part of a Master of Science (Research) in Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development, University of Malta.
This time last year, I decided to start cycling to my office at the University of Malta. Though much of my work focuses on this kind of behavioural change, I would be lying if I said that I did it for environmental or research reasons. I did it out of sheer despair: I felt like I was wasting my life, stuck in traffic for hours on end. I will also readily admit that when I started, I was not adequately prepared: I was not fit enough for it. Nor did I have the agility and speed to compete with cars while balancing on two narrow wheels. But I somehow hung in there. And somehow, before I knew it, a whole year had gone and I had never used a car to come to university—nor ever wanted to.
One of the forces that made a real difference was ‘others’. While I’d long marveled at my friends and colleagues at universities overseas who cycled to work without much fanfare, it was finding a community of commuting cyclists here in Malta that really made a difference. Gathered as the ‘Bicycle Advocacy Group‘ on Facebook, they are a new cyclist’s best allies. They helped me find bike-friendly (and unfriendly) roads, plot routes ahead of time, and consoled me after bad incidents. They organise group rides. They advocate and educate. Groups on campus such as the Green Travel Plan people were also great. In the world of cycling, unlike that of driving, the more we are, the merrier it is!
The second major step in this journey was to make it increasingly easy for me to choose the bike over car. A car key always looks so easy to pick up. Instead, I prepared my bike, my bag, my helmet, and all my accessories by the door. I left some extra clothes and toiletries at work, ready when needed. I changed my days around to make them cycle friendly, clustering meetings, avoiding heavy loads. I also made it a point to reward myself for cycling by keeping snacks handy for energy. This probably explains why I did not lose any weight despite a whole year of pedaling.
While I’d long marveled at my friends and colleagues at universities overseas who cycled to work without much fanfare, it was finding a community of commuting cyclists here in Malta that really made a difference.
All this said, the main barrier for lots of people (and myself) is the fear of being hurt on the road. I learnt a few practical tricks that made cycling less scary. The first is that lowering risk is entirely possible. Some times are better than others for cycling. In peak traffic, cars are moving very slowly or at a complete standstill, making it somewhat safer for you to cycle! Some roads are also better than others. With time, I found out that it is possible to use country lanes or smaller urban roads for most journeys. Where traffic is unavoidable, I stick to the middle of the lane, especially if a driver cannot safely pass while leaving a meter of space. Traffic will wait behind you (often the speed limit is 30km/hr anyway). This is even more important if there’s a row of cars to your right where anyone can open a door and knock you off the bike. Thirdly, I learnt to signal large so drivers know my intent. I also learnt cycling is a mental and physical work out. You need to be completely focused and watch out for any possible danger. Where needed, I get off my bike and cross roads on foot.
While poor public infrastructure and law enforcement remain a constraint, I gradually bought things that made the cycling life easier. My first purchase was the bicycle. I started with a basic folding bike (€200 or so). I chose a folding bike to give myself a parachute in case I got too tired and needed a lift home. The climb to Gharghur from University was nothing short of exhausting. I walked most of it for the first few weeks. Then a very attractive grant was issued for e-bikes. This changed everything: you may pedal less on an e-bike but you will certainly cycle more frequently. Later, I stuck a rack and a basket to the bike. I bought a trekking backpack (which means I sweat less), a good water bottle (which also comes in handy to wash my hands), and a helmet (even though it’s not a legal obligation to wear one). I got a high visibility vest (free from several campaigns), white and red lights and reflectors (though I’m still rather scared to cycle at night), and a mirror, which helps me see cars coming from the rear without having to turn my head and risk losing my balance. I’m still angling for a good bell, better fenders, and flat tyre-changing supplies. I eventually bought a good lock—a must.
Like other positive habits, the more you do it, the more you love it. I especially love not having to look for parking, getting to places quickly and on time, and discovering new routes. I love smiling at people, feeling younger and fitter. In hindsight, and with a rather limited sample size of one, I can see that what made it work (consciously or not) was quite in line with research: a break in habit, a combination of lower barriers, and stronger motives.
EcoMarine Malta’s boat tours are leading the way in environmentally sustainable tourism around the Maltese Islands. Founder Patrizia Patti talks to Edward Thomas about how economic success doesn’t need to be sacriﬁced in order to protect nature.
Aquarter of Malta’s GDP comes from the tourism industry. It accounts for €2 billion annually and shows no sign of slowing down. Tourist expenditure went up by 13.9% from 2016 to 2017 alone. It constitutes one in every seven jobs in the local economy and maintains a close link to development: better hotels, improved roads, more diverse shops and restaurants. Beyond the economic benefits, tourism promotes and celebrates local customs, food, traditions, and festivals, creating a sense of civic pride.
However, there are concerns. In July and August, Malta, Gozo, and Comino are covered by thousands of holiday-makers flocking in. This is a not only a burden on already strained island resources and infrastructure including water, waste management, and traffic congestion, but it pushes many coastal habitats and aquatic ecosystems to the breaking point, with drastic impacts on local biodiversity.
Marine biologist Patrizia Patti laments how ‘people go with speed boats to Comino carrying beers, drinking, throwing bottles into the sea, playing loud music… it disturbs everything.’ If larger tour companies made a small effort to be more responsible, it could have a large effect, she says. ‘Even a simple announcement on a microphone, reminding people they are in a protected area and to behave in a certain way, advising people to respect nature, would help. It’s only a small reminder but it would help a lot.’ Always looking to lead by example, and to show that small actions can have a great impact, Patti set up EcoMarine Malta. The start up organises responsible boat tours around the island, where the international code of conduct is followed and people can experience the joy of encountering dolphins, turtles, and seabirds in their natural habitat.
FACE TO FACE
Patti says their goal is to establish profound personal connections between people and the sea in the hopes that it will change behaviour. She has been passionate about marine biology since the age of 17, when she first encountered a dolphin. That happened during a school trip to an aquarium. She says ‘it was exciting because it was the first time I saw a dolphin, but it was terrible seeing it trapped in a small tank. It made me so sad.’ The emotional response was strong enough to move Patti to tears. ‘It was at that point I decided I wanted to become a marine biologist. I wanted to help.’
Patti went on to study the ecology of sperm whales in the Ligurian Sea before travelling far and wide, gaining experience working with marine mammals in Canada, the Maldives, and the Red Sea. In 2013, she cofounded Costa Balenae Whale and Nature Watching in Italy, a company, like Eco Marine Malta, which strongly focuses on bringing humans closer to marine wildlife, forming lasting memories that inspire them to consider their environmental impact and educating both children and adults about the natural biodiversity of the Mediterranean Sea.
How can you love something and want to protect it when you’ve never seen it?
Seeing these animals and experiencing their natural environment first hand is vital to establishing an emotional bond. This is what then engages people and inspires them to change their behaviour. ‘How can you love something and want to protect it when you’ve never seen it?’ Patti questions. By opening local and tourists’ eyes to the majesty of indigenous species, EcoMarine Malta create compassion and motivate people to take responsibility for the environment too. They also chip away at the sense of helplessness many feel when it comes to ‘actually making a difference.’ EcoMarine Malta provide education and information for their passengers to follow. Patti, who leads the tours herself, goes into how they can enjoy Malta’s beaches responsibly and sustainably, empowering them to take ownership for their actions and decisions before it’s too late.
It’s not always been plain sailing for EcoMarine Malta and their boat trips. Patti firmly believes that environmental conservation can be a tool to increase economic growth and employment in Malta. ‘Even if we act like an NGO, we decided to be a private company
because we want to create job places and grow and be able to provide the best service possible,’ Patti says. But not everyone agrees. Patti has received plenty of push back from others in the field as she lobbies for best practices to be enforced around the islands.
Some views are severely narrow and short-sighted, rooted in the belief that any sort of restriction of operations is bad, even if inspired by respect and protection for the natural resources they use. ‘People have to understand that a protected area is to enjoy for a long time. Maybe not now, maybe for one or two years you have to be careful, you can’t do everything you want to do. But after those two years, you can enjoy a new beautiful area, rich in life,’ explains Patti. Setting up EcoMarine Malta as a for-profit enterprise to prove these people wrong, however, has led to another kettle of fish. Because they’re not an NGO, applying for sponsorship and funding is a major challenge. Potential benefactors often dismiss collaboration, telling Patti that the company should be able to support its own endeavours.
This lack of support saw EcoMarine Malta having to rent boats from various charter companies, a massive expense. Externally renting a boat brought with it uncertainty and inflexibility. Last-minute dropouts or weather changes forced them to cancel tours and lose a lot of money. ‘The boat rental still had to paid for,’ she says. But things are looking up. EcoMarine Malta purchased their own boat this summer, and Patti is working hard on getting all the permits in place to have it out on the water as soon as possible. ‘Now we will be able to plan our own routes and diversify the tours we offer. At the moment, we have six tours available to choose from, including a sunset tour when marine life is at its most active,’ she smiles.
GET THEM YOUNG
2018 might be EcoMarine Malta’s first full summer season, but that doesn’t stop Patti from dreaming big about their future. She and her team want to do more outreach and education and are working on offering a series of courses for students aged between 10 and 16 years old. These children will be able to participate in a day of hands-on classroom activities, discovering and learning about sustainability and the ecosystem of the Mediterranean, followed by a boat trip to implement their new knowledge, observing and identifying the variety of wildlife and nature surrounding them and their island. ‘We hope to inspire a whole new generation of marine biologists and environmental scientists,’ Patti says.
With an army of environmentalists in the making, Patti hopes they will take over her role in the future. That would allow her to refocus on a passion she is itching to pick up again: searching for evidence of sperm whales in the Mediterranean surrounding the Maltese Islands. Her eyes light up as she admits to me, ‘I love outreach, but my personal dream is to spot sperm whales in Malta.’ Researchers know that juvenile and female sperm whales in the Atlantic remain in warm waters while the males migrate to the poles to feed, but movements and social dynamics of pods in the Mediterranean are still unclear.
With an army of environmentalists in the making, Patti hopes they will take over her role in the future.
Looking forward, Patti is working hard to establish networks with other entities and NGOs who share the same vision. EcoMarine Malta already collaborates with the likes of Birdlife Malta and has been involved with beach ‘Clean Up’ projects in the past year. Patti asserts that despite everything, ‘the Maltese public and tourists are some of the most enthusiastic and passionate people we’ve worked with so far. It’s great to see people of all ages and backgrounds, coming together to work on a common goal.’
‘Everyone can contribute different things, and together, it adds up to make a big difference.’ Patti is keen to encourage people to help in whatever way they can. To cooperate with others and not feel overwhelmed or alone in their efforts. ‘It’s not possible to do it alone. We need to work together, holistically, caring about the land, sea, and air, to protect the island’s environment.
For more information visit: ecomarinemalta.com.mt
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