Lorenza Jachia is a Senior Economist in the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office in Belgrade, Serbia. She has held positions of increasing responsibility in the UN at national, regional, and global levels, including as Secretary to the Working Party on Regulatory Cooperation and Standardization Policies from 2008 to 2020. She is a vocal advocate for the use of standards as a foundation for trade, sustainable development, resilience to natural and man-made hazards and gender equality. Lorenza has an extensive publication record, including books on risk management, disaster risk reduction, and gender mainstreaming.
Lorenza, you’ve worked for many years at a high level in the UN. Given your many years of experience, do you think that systemic change – the kind we need for our food system and other global systems – comes more effectively from a top-down approach or from grassroots pressure?
We often don’t realise how powerful we are as individuals. When you look back in history, you see that, very often, large movements started with one single voice. It is then grassroots action that drives a shift in what is considered socially acceptable. For example, women were excluded from politics until just a few decades ago, and now many countries are taking positive action towards gender equality in parliaments and government administrations. I hope this will happen also for plant-based food and the vegan lifestyle.
Public decision-makers also have great responsibilities. Their first responsibility, in my mind, is to protect citizens from preventable harm. At a time when we are confronted with unfathomable risks to all forms of life on Earth, including climate change, pollution, and ecosystem collapse, elected officials must urgently respond to the demands of citizens for change, putting life, not profit, at the centre.
Changing what we eat is a personal responsibility, especially for those of us who live in countries and situations where so much variety is abundantly available. But making it possible and desirable for all of us to change the way we eat requires policymakers to redesign our food system so that it contributes to preventing the most extreme consequences from wreaking havoc on the lives of the most vulnerable.
Finally, we, at the United Nations have a unique responsibility as convenors of those whose voices are often not heard, and we must amplify them so that their demands are honoured and the commitments we have made towards them are translated into action.
To what extent do you think the average person is aware of the linkages between our diet – particularly the consumption of animal-based products – and environmental destruction? I’ve been reading about it for decades and yet I meet many educated people who are unaware of these connections.
Indeed. There is still little awareness about the impact of animal-based products on climate change, environmental destruction, and biodiversity loss. Yet, the evidence is overwhelming. Total emissions from global livestock – even by a conservative estimate – represent 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions (see FAO). Animal agriculture is the most significant driver of ecosystem destruction and habitat loss, including through deforestation, as an ever-increasing share of land is turned into pastures or monocultures to produce animal feed.
I also see the media sending very confusing messages that do not help citizens to understand the real impact of their actions. For example, we are often encouraged to give up straws and single-use products, and many people do so and feel legitimately proud of avoiding new plastics making their way into river courses, seas and oceans. Yet, most of the plastic in the sea does not come from the use of everyday objects, but rather from fishing gear. This message is almost entirely absent from mainstream media, so people see no link at all between plastics and the fish on their plates. As another example, we often hear that the most sustainable foods are local ones, and that we need to avoid foods coming from overseas in order to cut emissions from transport. Research shows how profoundly misleading these messages are, as beef – even if it is produced locally – will always generate more emissions and have a higher environmental impact than lentils, even if these have travelled more ‘food miles’. We need to refocus our messages, so as to drive behavioural changes in areas that are mission-critical.
Do you think that a better future can be arrived at through incremental changes to our current systems, or is complete system transformation the only thing that can save us and the planet in its current form?
Incremental changes have their place; they should not be dismissed. They show how important individual responsibility is. For example, if the entire US population did not eat any animal-based foods for just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road. If they cut their intake by half, global food-related GHG emissions would fall by 35%.
However, we are at the point where incremental changes are not enough. Our food system needs a complete redesign. We are literally eating our planet to destruction, yet, at the same time, we are not able to feed our human family. Nearly one in three people in the world – or more than 2 billion human beings – do not have access to adequate food (FAO 2021) and millions of farmers live in abject poverty.
The adoption of sustainable, healthy, plant-based diets and the promotion of alternative proteins is a key opportunity that we must embrace. We cannot afford to continue the current pattern where livestock grazing and feed production take up most of the land on earth, yet produce just 18% of food calories (Science 2018). A transition to plant-based diets would allow us to drastically cut GHG emissions while reducing our environmental footprint and averting and reversing ecosystem destruction. We must reimagine our menu for sustainable development in a way that puts farmers and fishing communities at the centre. Just like in the energy sector, we need to design a just transition that gives opportunities to mining communities. One action that must be explored is public procurement of and public investment in plant-based protein, which could help to increase the sector’s projected market share to 20% by 2035, and has been identified in a recent report (Systemiq 2023) as one of three key levers that can be used to reverse climate change.
Do you think that the rise of women in society, academia, and industry will have a transformative impact on our economic and social models?
Absolutely. In a previous UN position, I developed and nurtured a network of over one thousand experts and led them into several transformative initiatives. One of the most successful among these was the ‘Declaration on Gender Responsive Standards’ which I ideated and rolled out to over eighty standards organisations, all over the world. In the beginning, only a few colleagues understood how gender-blind standards impact women in their personal and professional lives. I remember that for most people, there was no apparent link between standards and women’s empowerment. And that lack of awareness motivated me, and then a small group of like-minded individuals working alongside my team, to work even harder. We proved our point through research and hard evidence, involving academia and research centres. We raised awareness among the general public, through campaigns on social media and by organising large public events, also online. And I had hundreds of one-on-one conversations with leaders in government and standards-making bodies. Change comes from individual and collective action and compels changes in perceptions and policy. It took time, yes, and only now do I see the first standards developed based on our joint work. For example, personal protective equipment, which is used in dangerous workplaces, was often designed exclusively on the basis of male morphology, de facto excluding women from professional opportunities in some sectors. And this is changing now. I see many women at the forefront of the vegan movement, and they inspire me every day.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity. The opinions expressed here are the respondent’s personal opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the United Nations or ProVeg International.
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