I <3 potato

Plant-based diets are going mainstream all over the world. Cassi Camilleri sheds light on the local vegan movement and how reducing our meat consumption can benefit us all.

Some label the rise of plant-based living as evidence of ‘trend culture’. And they’re not all wrong. Traditional media bombards us with countless headlines on the topic’s pros and cons. Hard-hitting advocacy films like Cowspiracy and Forks over Knives expose the horrors of the meat industry. Social media influencers share their experiences with the diet, turning it into lifestyle content. And now the market is following suit with vegan and veggie lines and options popping up everywhere.

In 2016, an Ipsos MORI survey for the Vegan Society identified that 3.25% of adults in the UK never eat meat in any form as part of their diet, equating to roughly 540,000 people. Vegan January—commonly known as Veganuary—is growing in popularity. This year, a record-breaking 250,310 people from 190 countries registered for the month-long vegan pledge. And Malta is no exception.  

While the official number of people following a plant-based or vegan diet are unavailable, interest is clear. Facebook pages Vegan Malta and Vegan Malta Eats have a combined following of over 16,500 people. 

The reasons behind people’s decision to take up veganism are various, however three main motivators keep being cited: health benefits, ethics, and environmental concerns. For vegan business woman Rebecca Camilleri the process was natural and gradual. ‘There was no real intention behind it for me. But after a couple of months of following this diet, I noticed that my energy levels were better than before, and this encouraged me to learn more on how I needed to eat in order to nourish my body with the right nutrients to sustain my active lifestyle.’  

Researcher and nutritionist Prof. Suzanne Piscopo (Department of Health, Physical Education, and Consumer Studies, University of Malta) confirms that ‘moving towards a primarily plant-based diet is recommended by organisations such as the World Health Organization and the World Cancer Research Fund, for health and climate change reasons.’

Oxford academic Dr Marco Springmann has attempted to model what a vegan planet would look like, and the results are staggering. According to his calculations, should the world’s population switch to a vegan diet by the year 2050, the global economy would save $1.1 trillion in healthcare costs. We would also save $0.5 trillion in environmental costs, all while slashing greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds. 

Despite all this, veganism has earned itself quite a few enemies along the way. The vitriol thrown back and forth across both camps is shocking. Relatively recently, UK supermarket chain Waitrose came under scrutiny after magazine editor William Sitwell responded to plant-based food article ideas from writer Selene Nelson with a dark counter offer—a series on ‘killing vegans’. Sitwell was since forced to resign. Nelson posited that the hostility stems from ‘a refusal to recognise the suffering of animals. Mocking vegans is easier than listening to them.’

Abigail Higgins from American news and opinion website Vox agrees that guilt plays a role in the hatred aimed towards veganism, but also proposes that the whole movement ‘represents a threat to the status quo, and cultural changes make people anxious.’ This notion is based on research on intergroup threats and attitudes by US researchers Walter G. Stephan and Cookie White Stephan. 

It however remains a reality that some of the loudest voices in veganism in the past have been militant. Some have invoked hatred and threats towards those that they perceive not to be sufficiently aggressive in promoting the cause. Piscopo calls for a respectful discussion.

‘Food is not only about sustenance and pleasure, but has symbolic, emotional, and identity value. Take meat for example. Some associate it with masculinity and virility. Others link it to food security as meat was a food which was scarce during their childhood. Some others equate it with conviviality as meat dishes are often consumed during happy family occasions. What is important is that we do not try to impose our beliefs, thoughts, and lifestyle on anyone.’

The way forward is a ‘live and let live’ approach, according to Rebecca Galea. When her journey started she had people ‘staring strangely at [her] food’. Even her family didn’t take her seriously. ‘They were very sceptical as their knowledge on veganism was very limited at the time,’ she remembers. Now, seeing the effect the switch has made to Rebecca’s life, her positive choices are naturally impacting theirs. ‘Everyone is free to make their choice,’ she says. Embodying the philosophy of leading by example, Rebecca has even set up her own business making delicious vegan nut butters, spreads, and more, to great success. ‘The more vegan options are available [in Malta], the more people will be attracted to learning and accepting the benefits of veganism. This might also lead to them following a vegan lifestyle!’

With that, and sharing valid, up-to-date research-based information, as Piscopo suggests, it seems there is no stopping this ‘trend’. And who would want to when veganism can lead to a lower carbon footprint and better health for everyone? 

Food, gender and climate change

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.

Precious Shola Mwamulima

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.

Author: Precious Shola Mwamulima

Concrete for sustainability

Concrete is the most used building material supporting the construction boom. Hans-Joachim Sonntag talks to Dr Ruben Paul Borg about advances in cement bound materials that can lead towards sustainable development, more durable buildings, and a lower carbon footprint.Continue reading

Plan to Live

Can planning really sustain us? Should we plan to survive or is project planning simply there to overcome obstacles when we are faced with them? Dr Rebecca Dalli Gonzi writes about a group of project management M.Sc. students who she asked to prepare a project plan. During their project students suddenly faced an unexpected turn of events. They were asked to counteract the problem and face the challenges that they encountered. This is their story

Planning is constant action; it never stops. If you are moving to a new house or country, you probably know what this means. Planning is pervasive, but can it get out of hand? What does planning a gap year mean? Do you plan every single minor detail or do you let loose to enjoy some spontaneity? If, for example, a couple is turning a shell apartment into a home it would involve a lot of tasks, planning leave in advance, and chasing the architect. They just might give up when a book shelf cannot get through the door. If we can plan to live, how would it help us get out of a rut when things really go wrong?

Managing your life is not that different to managing a project. When you manage a project you need a flexible plan that can meet the unplanned changing demands that life hurls at you. We live in a time when the efficiency of a service or project is based upon its ability to meet change or increasing demands. Would a project plan ensure that your plans run smoothly even when your life path starts changing its course?

Solar Carport
Solar Carport

Project managers cannot always foresee every eventuality when planning and managing a project. Once a project is underway many unexpected events can affect project target dates and resources. Planning at its simplest would mean better management and more knowledge, while at its most complex, it could mean more peace of mind. Trying to plan a complex project without a plan is like trying to cross the Pacific Ocean without a navigation system.

Positioning your project within vulnerable situations during the initial planning stages means your team can generate ideas develop creative solutions, and have a solid idea about the resources they have, time schedules they need to stick to, and budgets. This is exactly what helped Rita Sant manage change during an unexpected turn of events as soon as her project was launched.

Plan for Health

Sant designed a healthcare concept for homebound patients called ‘SMART At HOME’. It offered a combination of home health and community based services. She carried out in-depth research to come up with the right strategy, marketing analysis, project milestones, and deployment plan. Things seemed perfect on paper. Yet she ran into a game changer. Shortly after the project was launched, a competing company called HomesforYou was set up. It threatened to put her project on hold. HomesforYou offered similar concepts that which her project sponsors had in mind. However, Rita and her team had engineered some alternate options before the actual launch to keep the company ahead of the competition. Putting the project in a vulnerable position through an in-depth SWOT analysis (analysis of the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats of a project) helped show the project sponsors where their focus should be. Her focus was primarily on selecting target markets and helping attract new customers. Sant was able to direct her team towards the right networks. She identified gaps in the south of Malta, and worked directly with doctors and insurance providers to bring in new customers.

Solar Carport
Solar Carport

Sometimes, we are so taken up by our projects that we fail to see the obvious, to question the challenges whilst assuming we have already envisaged the end result. Project planning helps identify areas of weakness through tools like PESTEL analysis (analysis of political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal factors that impact business), SWOT analysis, performance testing to verify strategies (plan workability), design of project think tanks, project recovery planning, contingency planning, and risk analysis (amongst other research areas). There is a lot of research behind project management.

Plan for Energy

Areas in the project that could have been overlooked suddenly become crucial. Sometimes being realistic is crucial to success. Another student, Joseph Borda, immediately received a notice that should his project exceed the proposed budgets the project sponsors would incur heavy fines. Borda was clear with his ideas from the start. Developing the power engineering workforce for the future is what he had in mind. His design of a solar panel array on the Malta International Airport car park would mean the generation of just enough energy to supply the airport. Proper time scheduling ensured that the project would be delivered within the specified time-frames. This could only work together with a proper team organisational structure and pre-designed hierarchical task network, which is the approach to automated planning where dependency among actions is given in the form of a network. A well-researched proposal helped Borda envisage proper scheduling to ensure the project was delivered within the specified time objectives, together with the team organisation structure and task hierarchies required to complete the task in time. Could a project schedule really have helped Borda stick to his time-frames? A project’s life or death hinges on its delivery date. Incurring fines meant that the project was narrowed down to a critical selection of what areas of the project had to be done in time.

“A solar panel array on the Malta International Airport car park would mean the generation of just enough energy to supply the airport”

The schedule alone would not have been a guarantee to a successful outcome. The initial stages of project research helped him and his team realise that the costings report for mounting and installation of the array was heavily over-priced. The project schedule helped mitigate the over-budget fines through the planning of phased installations and so areas that were going to be over-budget were shifted into a secondary phase. Typical project management requires attention to time, cost and quality. Once restrictions appear in one area, other areas begin to shift to accommodate new demands.

Having project management principles in place means there is a greater chance of fulfilling your objectives within the overall strategy and facilitating diagnosis of different situations as they occur. Just like captains need chart plotters or radars for distance and bearing to be able to manoeuvre ships in the worst conditions, so project managers use Gantt charts (a type of bar chart used to illustrate a project’s schedule) to help manoeuvre projects through time. Detailed planning helps translate business objectives into deliverables, provide a list of resource requirements, and a realistic assessment of project time-scales. Control measures can also be used to ensure there are no delays in target dates or to help identify team members who are not being productive.

Plan for Success

Measures of project progress can also be used to indicate when things are not moving as planned. Marc Spiteri decided to incorporate this approach into his project plan to meet a specific target: managing the Malta national rugby union team to qualify for the Rugby World Cup. Spiteri chose sports engineering as his field of study.

Spiteri’s primary objectives were to promote sports locally and to increase Malta’s appeal as a destination for sports tourism. The management plan was designed to operate on a three-point plan: first, having funding mechanisms in place for potential stakeholders and sponsors to bring in further investments; second, training and game planning aimed to work with the national team chosen to aid the organisational requirements for training camps and competitive games; third, a marketing strategy to tap into the local resources. 

Photo by Matthew Scerri
Photo by Matthew Scerri

However, Spiteri was faced with a difficult challenge. Sponsorship for his project plan was threatened to be reduced if specific targets were not reached. Spiteri had knowledge and insight at the planning stage to moderate the negative effects of this cut. During planning he was able to set key performance indicators in areas of finance, training, competition and markets as part of the project design. The performance indicators allowed him to set targets to reach his ambitious goal. Rather than add a measure of control as an after-thought, he was able to integrate this as a whole concept. This meant that significant changes or shortcomings would be assessed against a measurement system, allowing a prompt response to take place with the significant action.

Plan for Death

Project control helps to ‘diagnose’ issues, plan for tackling weaker areas and adjust quickly to changes. It is normal for the team to assume that everything will work out well in the end but unpredictable behaviours, unfortunately, do happen. A lack of ownership can cause as many problems as unscheduled timing of events or project delays. A project plan gives the team the ability to envisage areas in which people conduct their activities and carry out their responsibilities. The more prepared the team is (in terms of knowledge and know-how of project plan), the quicker the recovery period. Planning is also useful as a tool when it is used to focus and highlight project needs to those involved. This is of particular importance when a project manager has to suggest different solutions to his or her client. Johann Farrugia was particularly good at providing a number of solutions for his concept of a digital cemetery when he had a major on-site problem with humidity.

“Information in cemeteries is handwritten meaning that some of the oldest records are today hardly legible. This is why cemeteries need an IT system to meet today’s needs”

Cemeteries are sacred, emotional spaces but also witnesses of human history. Information in cemeteries is handwritten meaning that some of the oldest records are today hardly legible. This is why cemeteries need an IT system to meet today’s needs. Farrugia identified the needs of all the different groups of people who make use of or work at a cemetery and figured out a system that allowed the public to request information easily. Through the website, staff and undertakers could access all the information they needed about gravesite location and burial details.

Farrugia faced problems with the testing system. Extreme humidity was interfering with the IT infrastructure limiting system usage. However, he integrated alternatives as part of his project planning phase thus being able to suggest solutions to his stakeholders and project investors. He was able to locate a secondary location system for supporting the project, thus eliminating completely the location of IT structures on-site. He also factored costings for any added insulation works required to counteract the problem and sought alternative zones that suffered from less humidity within the cemetery. 

In this case, since the unexpected problem arose at an early stage, the project manager could be flexible in his planning, allow for change, and bring in alternate ideas to deal with these issues. Having considered the options beforehand meant that he could reduce the impact of a sudden major change. 

In some cases, external events can trigger unexpected time delays. At times it can appear impossible to finish a project punctually, especially when there are delays in materials or suppliers. Sometimes a schedule should be consistent with your experience from previous projects. Your main focus should be on getting your critical requirements completed while avoiding distractions. The project management plan is critically dependent on the people who run it, design it, create it, and implement it. Moreover, increases in dependences increase time-frames.

Plan for Sustainability

Time-frames can quickly overrun when introducing sustainable measures into a residential development. Another student, Joslyn Magro, was keen to integrate into her project grey water reservoirs used to hold second class water for domestic use including lavatory use and landscaping photovoltaic panels, double glazing, and landscaping works. Sustainability has been an evolving theme to encourage environmental responsibility and promote intelligent decision- making with respect to energy use. Bad weather delayed the required materials that were being imported and this set the project back by a month.

By using a Gantt chart, Magro saw the negative effects of this delay. It would impact other installations and works. To reduce the burden, she scheduled architectural detailing and structural elements to run in parallel. This would reduce the dependency on strict delivery dates.

Information in cemeteries is handwritten meaning that some of the oldest records are today hardly legible. This is why cemeteries need an IT system to meet today’s needs
Information in cemeteries is handwritten meaning that some of the oldest records are today hardly legible. This is why cemeteries need an IT system to meet today’s needs

In her project plan she had also considered sourcing from different suppliers so she was able to negotiate costs affected by the delays. Once the materials were delivered on site, she could also introduce secondary teams of labourers to make up for the one-month back log. Costings saved during the delay, were used on a double-managed team unit. In her case, this may have proved to be the winning strategy as managing the on-site team as best as possible would help to counteract any further setbacks.

Taking advantage of constraints is the best way in project planning when possible. Projects revolve around expectations so it is better to envisage opportunity rather than to try control an event. Turning a shell apartment into a home might sound like a simple project in comparison to the ones discussed earlier but the problems would, theoretically, be very similar. Delays, supplier changes and exceeded budgets would surely impact your strategy along the way. Having strict milestones might be useful. It is not always necessary to consider worst-case scenarios but do consider carefully how much risk is actually acceptable. Most importantly, do not try to solve the problem, solve the cause. 

This article covers some work of the first cohort of students enrolled in the M.Sc. in Project Management launched by the Department of Construction and Property Management, Faculty for the Built Environment, University of Malta. The diversity of projects reflects the range of situations in which project management skills are being applied.