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Food and Climate Change without the hot air - S L Bridle ***

My first impression here was that S L Bridle was going to have to work very hard to recover from the subtitle, which is painfully inaccurate. (Spoiler alert for those who don't like suspense - thankfully, the book is a lot better than the subtitle.) The subtitle reads 'Change your diet: the easiest way to help save the planet.'

Firstly, the planet does not need saving from climate change. A good number of species are put at risk by climate change and human civilisation could be severely traumatised, but the planet will be just fine. It's gone through far worst in the past. Second, changing diet isn’t easy. Not at all. As Bridle makes clear, one longhaul flight has the same impact as a whole year of food consumption, while even a shorthaul flight contributes a similar amount of greenhouse gasses as the change that could be made by a transformed diet. It's much easier to not take one flight than it is to change several meals a day. (Of course it's best to do both - but it doesn't make sense to claim that changing diet is the easiest way to make a difference.)

Luckily, when we get onto the presentation of the facts in this big, glossy, full colour book, things are much better. (Incidentally, doesn't being a big, glossy, full colour book have more climate impact than being a small, non-glossy, black and white book?) I really like the way that Bridle assembles the greenhouse gas emissions from the different aspects that go into things we eat and drink, from making a cup of tea or coffee to typical meals through the day. It is clearly explained and well illustrated with charts. This does really help readers to think through the way that their eating actions cause greenhouse gas emissions and how, for example, eating less meat could have a positive impact.

If I have one criticism here, it is that the numbers are rather plucked out of the air, and are over-simplistic when dealing with what can be quite complex factors. So, for example, Bridle says that my electricity use implies burning coal or gas and hence significant emissions, which are factored into the impact of my tea, coffee and cooked meals. But in the UK, we hardly burn any coal now, and my energy company assures me that my electricity is 100 per cent from renewables - so why is this true? These kind of points need more rounding out to make sense to the reader.

I'd also say that after you've seen the details on a few meals, things get a bit similar. There are plenty of other aspects to bring in, of course. Greenhouse gas emissions from animals and from food waste, for example. But the format of describing what goes into meal after meal isn't ideal. Again, we could have done with some more detail. So, for example, there's much debate over whether having sheep on grassland that can't be used to raise crops is or isn't better than not having them. Similarly, in There is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee does a great job of breaking down how food waste happens and how to reduce it, where here we get a lot less of that detail (even though this is a lot bigger book).

I liked this book and the ideas it was putting across, but for me it could have been significantly better.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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