University of Johannesburg: UJ’s Food Evolution Research Lab explores the environmental sustainability of plant-based diets

​Experts say a more sustainable future could stem from plant-based diets. If we eat less meat, fish and dairy products, the demand for it becomes less, which means less impact on the environment.

The University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Food Evolution Research Laboratory (FERL) led by Director Dr Hema Kesa, and a panel of experts participated in a webinar on Tuesday, 21 September 2021 under the theme ‘Plant Based Diets and your Carbon Footprint’. The webinar discussed the benefits of a plant-based diets, trends in the health foods sector, and what a more sustainably sourced future could look like.

Chef Mokgadi Isweng, Food Justice Activist & Member of the UN SDG focused Chef’s Manifesto says that the myth that South Africa’s food heritage is “meat-based” is one that had been perpetuated and sustained by the meat industry to get us eating more meat on our plates.

“This myth is keeping us hostage to a diet that is killing us with lifestyle diseases,” Chef Mokgadi said. “Africans are the original vegans. Our continent is rich in fruits, grains, nuts, tubers and vegetables that grow naturally here.”

”Indigenous South African foods like sorghum, millet, cowpeas, ditloo (Bambara nuts) are not only good for our health as they are packed with nutrients but also good for the earth as they are drought resistant and add nitrogen to the soil, she added.”

Experts said the sustainable plate of the future from the Eat Lancet Commission, is a flexitarian diet which is largely plant based but can optionally include small amounts of fish, meat and dairy products.

Dr Eridiong Onyeweaku, a Postdoctoral Research fellow at FERL emphasised the role of healthy diets in the prevention of both chronic and infectious diseases. “Fruit peels have been discovered to contain chemical compounds exhibiting antioxidant properties. These compounds include flavonoids, phenols, vitamins, minerals and carotenoids.”

“With the current global situation, there is a growing need to boost immunity in order to prevent disease and improve health which is in line with one of the Sustainable Development Goals. Edible fruit peels should be eaten alongside the fruits. All these will go a long way in reducing the risk of disease and improve health.

The speakers and audience members included registered nutritionists, biotechnologists, policy makers and researchers. The host for the event featured Marian Cottle, a vegan chef and plant-based consultant. Also speaking was Dr Angeline Jeyakumar, Savitribai Phule from Pune University, India- debunking myths about Indian dietary patterns and delving into the integrative nutrition and the role of plant based diets.