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A Vegan in Norway: Food, Policy, and Public Attitudes

Mia MacDonald traveled to Norway in October 2015 to visit the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo and to be a tourist  This blog is the first in what will be a four-part series on her experiences and observations during the trip. 

Oslo, Norway’s capital, has a reputation, which is deserved, for being expensive. When I visited the city 10 years ago, I recall eating a salad for lunch that cost about U.S.$25. It was very good, full of fresh field greens and raw vegetables. But the cost was about 2.5 times what it would have been in New York City, where I live and most often eat. So when I went back to Oslo in August, I planned to eat as little as I could and as cheaply. I was curious about whether veg*n cuisine had taken hold in Norway and how “veg-friendly” Oslo would be. I hoped I’d have more options to eat well and affordably than I’d had in 2004. I figured I wouldn’t eat a salad like that again, given the price!

Grand Hotel

To be fair, I’d eaten that salad at the café of the Grand Hotel, an Oslo landmark. The Grand is not only luxurious but also historic. It’s where Nobel peace laureates are lodged when they receive their prize each December 10th. American TV icon Oprah Winfrey stayed here when she hosted the Nobel peace prize concert in 2004 (which I attended). Norwegian writers and artists like Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Munch, used to eat lunch in the Grand Hotel’s café a century or so ago. (I learned at Oslo’s Ibsen Museum that, despite knowing many of his fellow diners in the café, Ibsen rarely spoke to any of them, including his friend the painter Munch.)

Street Vegetable Stand

So before I left New York I did some research and was surprised and pleased to find a Vegan Oslo website that helpfully offered a Vegan Oslo app that I downloaded to my phone. My expectations, though, weren’t high. “Their diet is the worst,” a friend, not a Norwegian herself, told me. She recounted meals full of meat (lamb, mutton and “cured” meats like sausages) or fish (mainly salmon), potatoes and cheese, and with very few vegetables.

My friend’s perception showed up in the data. Norwegians eat relatively high levels of meat: 66 kilograms a year each (more than in China), along with a lot of cheese. They even outdo Americans. Each Norwegian ate an average of 18.1 kgs of cheese in 2013, while in the U.S. the total was 15.4 kgs each. And data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization shows consumption of meat in Norway rising, at least through 2011.

Streets of Oslo

In line with its small population of 5.1 million people, Norway has a relatively small livestock sector. But livestock are Norway’s main agricultural “product.” The sector’s shape, though, is changing. The number of cows in Norway fell by 16 percent between 2000 and 2010, to about 600,000. And the number of number of pigs and chickens rose a lot, as it is in many countries: the population of pigs grew by 16 percent, while the number of poultry (mainly chickens) leaped up by about 50 percent. Of course, like the rest of Europe and other developed countries, industrial animal agriculture exists in Norway.

Conditions tend to be more intensive – and worse overall – for pigs and chickens than they are for cows used for meat or dairy. At the same time and again, like people in other parts of Europe, animal welfare and “healthy food” rank high for Norwegians, according to a 2013 survey of agricultural policies. Reducing food prices was given much lower priority by those participating in the survey, and the use of GM (genetically modified) seeds wasn’t popular with Norwegians at all.

Vegetarian Cafe

More recently, the National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO) wanted to find out if Norwegians knew about the effects of livestock production on global greenhouse gas emissions, and if they cared enough to take action. Their survey found that to lower their “ecological footprint”, 51 percent of Norwegians had reduced electricity use. But a much smaller proportion,14 percent, said they’d eaten less meat. The researchers blame Norway’s media for giving very little attention to the environmental and climate change impacts of meat production and consumption. Norway’s politicians also don’t have a consistent position on the issue.

Plus, the SIFO observed, agricultural interests and environmentalists’ perspectives on meat vie with each other in the media, leaving many Norwegians “hoe-hum” or confused. That’s unfortunate. From another perspective, however, the SIFO survey results are encouraging. It means that almost 750,000 people in Norway are eating less meat on ecological grounds. How many countries would have 14 percent of their people doing this? It’s hard to think of any, apart from the United Kingdom.

 

An Environmental Studies Education Minus the Food: What Do Students Studying Environmental Studies Know About The U.S. Dietary Guidelines?

As discussed in a previous blog post, The U.S. dietary guidelines were recently released without including recommendations on sustainability and more sustainable ways of eating (i.e., less meat, more plants). As an environmental studies major at New York University, I was curious to learn how informed my colleagues were about these guidelines. Since this seemed to be such a significant loss for the environmental community, I expected that many students would be aware of this decision. To find out, I surveyed 55 university students. I asked a series of questions which included:

  1. Are you an environmental studies major or minor?

 18% Yes

  1. Did you know that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines existed before taking this survey?

25% Yes

  1. Did you know that a sustainability element was potentially going to be included in the guidelines released this year?

5% Yes

  1. Did you know that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines that were published did not include these sustainability criteria?

5% Yes

  1. Do you care that this was not included? Why or why not?

82% Yes

  1. Do you think the government can/should encourage people to eat more sustainably? If so, how?

91% Yes

When reviewing the survey results, I was shocked to find that 18% of the students surveyed were studying environmental studies as a major or minor but only 5% of students knew that new guidelines were published this year. Of this 5%, some were not even environmental studies students.

How is it possible that those students who are majoring in environmental studies know so little about the U.S. Dietary Guidelines? As an environmental studies student, I feel that food is often overlooked and not seen as one of the most important climate change issues. Although I have learned about food in some of my classes, and there are many electives centered around food, it does not seem to be a concern for the majority of students. This became very clear with the results of my survey. I strongly feel that this issue needs to be “brought to the table,” most especially in the classroom of those aspiring environmentalists, because the way we eat does have a significant impact on the environment.

Survey pg. 2

Survey pg. 1

 

Photo Credit: Natalie Petrulla and www.timigustafson.com

 

 

Animal Farming and Planet Health at COP21

This blog is part of Wanqing Zhou’s longer report on her work at COP21 in Paris, France in December 2015. To read that longer blog entry, click here.

Brighter Green’s side events took place in the second week, when the number of other side events related to meat production and consumption also increased. These stimulated the discussion on animal farming and its impacts on climate change, environmental pollution, food security, and public health. Experience of dietary change was also a hot topic, with philosophical reflection on the widespread overconsumption of meat and in general, on the differences between typical western and eastern views of nature and health, and on whether meat, eggs, and dairy should be categorized as foods at all.

wanqing_speaking_cop21_dec9

Wanqing speaking at Brighter Green’s side event on December 9.

It is not clear how many people in the group are already following a vegetarian or vegan diet, but among those who actively participated in the discussion, at least half were not. However, based on the discussion, consensus was that a plant-based diet is better for the health of people and the environment.

This perspective is also reflected in the comments under “COP21 Side Events Call for Less Meat Consumption and Less Emissions”, an article by Ling Wang and published on Caixin.com. Among a dozen comments, more than half supported the idea of eating less meat. Examples include:

“This is not a joke. It is actually the same as calling for green transport and energy saving,”

“We indeed need to reduce meat intake,”

“A plant-based diet is better for the environment,” and

yummy meal

One of Wanqing’s climate-friendly meals in Paris.

“Zero meat consumption is also doable.”

Hongqiao Liu from the Earth Journalism Network also reported on the Brighter Green side event, as well as the neglected issue of meat in the climate negotiations.

The role of regenerative grazing was brought up by some WeChat group participants who followed this method in their research. It was agreed that although regenerative grazing, when done correctly, can help restore ecosystems and sink organic carbon into the soil, more research is needed to study the effectiveness of this practice in different areas, and better farm-level measurement is needed to show the net climate impact on commercial stocking rates, before it is used to encourage the consumption of “carbon-sink meats”.

VegPlanet post including Wanqing’s coverage from COP21.

This is especially true in developed countries like the U.S., where per capita meat consumption has already exceeded threefold a level that poses serious threats to human health. At the same time, as shown in the WeChat group discussion, an increasing number of people in China, where the per capita meat consumption is 50% lower than that in the U.S., are waking up to the fact that the human body doesn’t require animal-based foods to be healthy.

On December 7, excerpts from the first week of group discussion were edited into a WeChat article and posted on VegPlanet, the largest vegan online platform in China, and reached nearly 1800 readers. It is encouraging to see the general public becoming increasingly concerned about the problems of livestock production and overconsumption, and sharing their opinions openly using information technologies to benefit more people. One year after we launched the WeChat Monthly Global Dialogue, our readership and volunteer group continues to grow, and we are seeing richer involvement in the discussion. Looking forward, activities like this are leading towards not only raised awareness, but also real actions for a more sustainable food system.

Photo Credit: Wanqing Zhou

COP21 Live Dialogue: Engaging the General Public on WeChat

Imagine waking up every morning to fresh event reports on climate change, livestock, and dietary shifts, and contributing to the hot discussion with researchers, practitioners, and activists after dinner. During the 21st Convention of Parties (COP21) in Paris, Brighter Green experimented on such an engaging project using WeChat, a smart phone application phenomenon in China.

WeChat-Logo-vector-imageAlmost everyone in China with a smart phone uses WeChat. It has the function of both WhatsApp and Facebook, allowing group discussions and sharing of photos, articles, and videos with followers. Since December 2014, Brighter Green has organized monthly discussions featuring experts on animal rights, nutrition, and diet, as well as the environment; the series is called Global Dialogue Online.

wfd_wechat_group_header

WFD WeChat group header

In the WeChat group established for a certain topic (e.g. farm sanctuaries, veganism, livestock and climate change, animal protection, etc.), the guest speaker can communicate with an audience in English or Chinese, with nearly simultaneous translation by volunteers. Brighter Green collaborates with What’s For Dinner? director Jian Yi and intern Miao Jie, in addition to a growing group of global volunteers, to coordinate these monthly live chats. Global Dialogue Online is an interactive aspect of the larger What’s For Dinner? (WFD)-themed WeChat group, which posts engaging, rich, unique content articles almost daily. Read More

Rebranding Veganism

By Chloe, a new vegan restaurant that recently opened in Greenwich Village N.Y., has an open atmosphere, trendy décor, and great food, but unlike most vegan restaurants, there is a constant line out the door. More importantly, the majority of these people are not vegan. Every time I eat at By Chloe, an all-vegan restaurant, I hear people whispering in line about how they are not vegan. Could veganism be the new trend?

I decided to investigate this idea by interviewing a variety of non-vegans who have eaten at By Chloe. Their reasons for coming were different. Whether they were dragged by a vegan friend, saw it on social media, or just because it looks like a cute place to dine, everyone agreed that this dining experience changed their perception of what it means to be vegan. Most of the people I interviewed agreed that all vegans were extreme hippies who ate weird foods. Jenny, a student at NYU, said that she thought all vegan food was just an attempt to recreate meat and cheese, particularly because she cannot comprehend how one can eat a full meal without these elements. Regardless of why they came, everyone agreed that the food was delicious. Stephen, a writer in New York City, said that he pitied people who were vegan because they didn’t get to enjoy food, but now he realizes that there are many food options that taste great and that are vegan. He even said that if more restaurants like By Chloe started opening up, he would frequent them. Miriam, another student at NYU, commented that since eating at By Chloe she has tried many other vegan restaurants and has started to lower her meat consumption.

By Chloe Restaurant

Photo credit: By Chloe Restaurant

As this restaurant becomes more popular, perhaps a greater number of people will change their minds (and palates) about what it means to be vegan. Once we realize how easy it is to find great tasting vegan options in New York City, veganism does not seem like such a big obstacle in our quest for tasty food. Thanks to restaurants like By Chloe, veganism is being “rebranded,” making it the new cool, trendy way to eat. Only time will tell if this trend sustains itself and makes veganism a “mainstream” thing, but so far it seems to be moving in the right direction.

Photo Credit: By Chloe restaurant and Natalie Petrulla