How Plant-Based Eating Is Changing Our Food System

I used to be a certifiable cheeseaholic. I could eat an entire wedge of brie and call it lunch, and there was no cheese too stinky for my tastes. I used milk daily in my tea, and although I ate tofu regularly, the idea of soy milk kind of grossed me out. (That’s kind of embarrassing to admit and also kind of hard for me to believe now.)

But when I started studying our food system, I realized that dairy farming wasn’t compatible with my values. In fact, I’ve learned that eating animals contributes to virtually all major environmental problems, from climate change to plastics in our ocean; diets overly rich in animal foods are sickening us with heart disease, cancers, and type-2 diabetes; and conditions for the vulnerable animals inside modern farms and slaughterhouses are miserable. I set out to find another way to eat.

Unfortunately for me, that was a decade ago, and vegan cheese was—well, let’s just say I finally found cheese too stinky to eat. The rubbery texture made a bad situation worse. The plant milks on offer were mostly good, but there was very little variety and they could be hard to find. I banished cheese—dairy and otherwise—from my life altogether, and, with exposure, recalibrated my taste buds to prefer soy milk.

Then I sat back and watched the plant-based food movement absolutely explode.

Of all of the changes I’ve seen (meaty veggie burgers! Cultured nut cheeses! Coconut yogurt!) plant-based milks represent, to me, the biggest transformation. Where once we had only urban or specialty grocery stores stocking a few token cartons of soy and rice milk, we can now find dedicated plant-based milk sections even in some of Canada’s more remote stores.

And the options! First, almond milk came onto the scene and stole everyone’s heart—I stayed loyal to soy milk for the most part but was thrilled to suddenly find almond milk at coffee shops and grocery stores almost everywhere I went.

The latest plant milk darling is oat milk, and with good reason. It has great body and holds up well in hot drinks. It also has a nice natural sweetness to it, which is rare among plant milks, and makes it especially palatable to kids. Oats grow well in cool Canada, being largely left alone by pests and requiring seven times less water than almond or cow milk. And oat milk is nutritious, containing a solid amount of protein and heart-healthy soluble fibre, but no common allergens. It earned a regular spot in my fridge.

The other big transformation I’ve seen over the last decade is more subtle. More and more of us are asking questions about our food system and trying to make food choices that match our values. Growing awareness of climate change, how food impacts our health, and farmed animal welfare are converging in an increased interest in plant-based eating.

As consumers, we’re realizing the power we hold to shape our world through the foods we choose to eat. Unlike other global problems that we may feel powerless to do anything about, we can positively impact the environment and farmed animals every time we shop for groceries. Plant-based eating is inherently lower impact because we simply grow plants to eat directly, rather than razing land, putting a bunch of pooping animals together in a confined space, and watering and fertilizing enormous amounts of feed crops to keep them alive.

For many of us, it’s no longer enough that we like a company’s product—we want to like the company, too. It’s becoming more and more clear that our food system is in need of repair. Businesses have both the power and the responsibility to shape our food system, and in turn, determine what kind of future we’ll have on our shared planet. Mission-driven companies—of which I consider Earth’s Own to be an example—can take advantage of existing systems and incentives to drive positive change, by conducting their businesses with integrity.

When we consumers use our collective power to change social norms around eating, governments follow with policy changes to further propel and normalize positive change. Stronger policies, in turn, increase accessibility to sustainable, healthy, and humane food choices for all consumers.

It all works together: companies create products that solve, rather than create, problems. Consumers change social norms by collectively spending their dollars in alignment with their values. And governments solidify our shared values by creating regulations and policies to support a thriving society.

In a world with no shortage of problems, I find it empowering to know that I can contribute positively to needed systemic change by simply choosing different products when I grocery shop. And these days, with all of the incredible plant-based options available, it’s no sacrifice— even for a reformed cheeseaholic like me.

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