Exclusive — Lana Weidgenant on food systems and climate action
I spoke with Gen Z environmental activist Lana Weidgenant about the importance of pushing for sustainable consumption habits to nourish humanity without destroying the planet.
In May, animal-rights group Mercy for Animals debuted For Nature, a hard-hitting short film conceptualised and scripted by Greta Thunberg.
Filled with images of environmental destruction, it directly links humanity’s exploitation of animals with the worsening climate crisis.
‘When we think about the villains of the climate crisis, we picture fossil fuel companies, but the agriculture industry contributes to about a quarter of our total emissions,’ Greta explains, adding that 83% of global land required for meat and dairy production is used to feed livestock.
That’s equivalent to an area the size of North and South America combined. Regardless of new advancements in stem cell meat, regenerative agriculture, and synthetic vegetables, it remains unnervingly clear that the agriculture industry continues to hinder our progress at every turn.
Not only this, but ‘every year we kill more than 60 billion animals excluding fish, whose numbers are so great that we only measure their lives by weight.’
Evidently, eating is the end point of a process we’re uncomfortably ignorant about, and a process driven by our tendency to over-consume. But despite the pandemic-induced reset period that’s given us a chance to realign our priorities, and a WWF report suggesting that food related solutions can account for 20 percent of the 2050 emission goal alone, food reform is largely ignored as a mitigation opportunity by those with the power to enact tangible transformation.
Highlighting the urgent need for systemic change that pushes for a shift to plant-based diets — which would ultimately save us up to a billion tonnes of CO2 annually and allow us to feed ourselves on 76% less land — Thunberg’s video certainly struck a chord with me.
An endeavouring vegan myself, I’ve recently begun exploring the connection between climate, ecological, and health crises, all, of course, a result of our industrialisation of life on Earth, exacerbated tenfold by our reluctance to give up animal products for good. The statistics speak for themselves, really.
But there is still hope, particularly in today’s youth, and Lana Weidgenant is proof.
A voice that’s leading the charge towards sustainable consumption as a climate solution, she’s calling for the world’s governments to focus their support on improving access to eco-friendly diets and acknowledge that fixing food systems(which essentially includes all processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population) should be an immediate priority.
How? With her participation in building a just and inclusive movement at the intersection of food and climate that seeks to mainstream plant-based options.
I spoke to Lana about the inspiring work she’s done, the vitality of reforming food systems in order to thwart climate change, and her ambitions moving forward.
Lana’s role in pushing for sustainable consumption as a climate solution
Since moving to the United States as a Brazilian immigrant, the Gen Zer has acquired a degree in Public Health Studies from Johns Hopkins University, co-organised the largest youth climate mobilisation in 2019 with Zero Hour International as its deputy director, volunteered with @foodatcop to ensure 100% climate-friendly food at COP26, and led several successful campaigns for the implementation of plant-based alternatives to fast food staples in major branches across America (to name a few of her impressive feats so far). She tells me that there wasn’t a specific moment when she decided to dedicate herself to the cause, more that as her opportunities evolved, so too did her involvement.
‘It was during an internship in the field of addressing factory farming issues when I really started to see the effect food systems were having on pollution, human rights, and biodiversity, among others’ she says.
‘I realised that changing them is a powerful way to build a better world, especially because they have a large short-term impact. I saw this as a means of turning things around as quickly as possible.’
Currently, Lana is working with #Act4Food and #Act4Change, both of which are global youth-led movements allowing us to decide what actions we would like our governments and businesses to take to ensure that the food system we grow up in is healthy, just, and sustainable.
This is in addition to her work with Real Food Systems, an advocacy platform of actionists committed to addressing the planetary emergency through sustainable food systems. Seeking to trigger behavioural change in our relationships with food and foster action on an international and societal scale, the organisation’s vision is a transformed future where plant-based is the foundation for human health.
Most impressive of all, however, is Lana’s role in this September’s Food Systems Summit, for which she is the Vice-Chair of Shifting to Sustainable Consumption Patterns.
‘I’m really fortunate in the food systems summit that they have given young people leadership positions for each of the action tracks which’ll hopefully set an example in other climate change spaces,’ she says. ‘You can have us integrated.’
Convened by UN Secretary General António Guterres whose quote ‘for too long we have been waging a senseless and suicidal war on nature’ Thunberg recites in For Nature, it will launch bold new measures to deliver progress on Decade of Action’s SDGs by 2030.
‘What really speaks to me is that we will not be successful in fighting climate change unless we address food systems because its impact is so significant that it’ll keep us in an unsafe position if we don’t deal with it,’ says Lana, understanding that mainstreaming plant-based gastronomy is a prerequisite to achieving sustainable, equitable food systems.
‘We need to bring in more food system transformation into the climate movement because around the world we already know the fossil fuel industry needs to change, but we don’t have that same acknowledgement regarding food systems. It’s a key gap that we need to establish in the wider conversation.’
Creating personal goals and the power of Gen Z
Lana outlines that the goals she is working towards alongside the broader movement include eventually banning factory farming worldwide, introducing national dietary guidelines in every country that take sustainability and the climate crisis into consideration, and a subsidy shift whereby governments are backing these practices with their policies.
Yet she demonstrates apprehension towards the empty promises of politicians, explaining that while we’ve reached the stage where world leaders are no longer denying climate change’s existence or avoiding commitment for the most part, they’re failing to perform in the present moment.
To date, only eleven countries under The Paris Agreement have plans (officially referred to as Nationally Determined Contributions) to reduce food loss and waste, and not one mentions the notion of promoting plant-based diets.
Given that increasing our consumption of coarse grains, fruits, vegetables and away from animal products has been cited as key to shrinking carbon emissions by upward of 8 gigatons a year, real financial weight would be put behind the food technology development sector in an ideal world.
‘We need to keep holding them accountable,’ she says. ‘Rather than dwelling on the issue of climate denial, we must ensure they’re keeping the promises they’ve been making for the last few years and respond directly to the delay tactics they continue to throw at us. We need real, hard evidence of the work they’ve claimed to be doing.’
On this note, she draws upon the power of her generation to take the lead, asserting that young people — those most impacted by the action, or lack thereof, that’s being taken today — have been at the forefront of just about all principal movements.
‘While I don’t think we all should need to be climate activists,’ she says, ‘having the support of young people behind us is collectively so powerful because we do have that special position in being impacted, in being the future, in being able to say we as youth understand we need action, to bring about change. Most of us can do something and it’s time we finally did.’
Kudos to you, Lana, for showing us the way.