[WATCH] A Lenten reflection: can you take the fight against climate change to the soul?

Can the Lenten season be an opportunity for Christians to consider the effects of meat production on greenhouse gas emissions and global food waste?

Fr Mark Ciantar, a member of the Church’s environment commission
Fr Mark Ciantar, a member of the Church’s environment commission
Taking the fight against climate change to the soul

I am inside the tranquil garden of the Santa Marija ta’ Gesu monastery in Rabat, a week after the international school strikes against climate change. As the clock ticks towards the irrevocable effects of disastrous climate change, the global imploration to rethink our consumption of meat and fossil fuels perhaps finds no better moment for reflection than the Lenten season.

Lent is known as a season of conversion, but as a term it also signifies a complete change, as Franciscan friar Mark Ciantar, a member of the Church’s environment commission, explains. “It’s when you’re moving in a particular direction and you decide to make a U-turn – changing direction completely,” he says – almost an identical consideration to the global call for the world to change its policies and address climate change seriously.

So can Lent, given its prohibitions on things like meat and sugar, be the right time to consider such revolutionary, game-changing actions like moving closer to a vegan diet and to consider its benefits for the world?

Food consumption is a recurring theme in the debate on adverse effect it has on the environment. In 2018, the University of Oxford found that avoiding or reducing meat and dairy products was one of the most significant ways to reduce environmental impact. Food production is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, but the environmental impact of different foods is vastly different.

Steak has a much higher footprint than a bowl of rice or a plate of chips. Meat and other animal products remain among the biggest culprits for over half of food-related emissions, and this despite providing only a fifth of the recommended calories that an individual should eat and drink. Eating chicken twice a week amounts to 106kg in greenhouse gasses, which directly contributes to global warming. It subsequently also consumes 7,134 litres of water, equalling to 109 showers lasting eight minutes each.

Fr Mark says that with Lent, the Christian faith invites its adherents to check where they are going and realign their lifestyle and values, during a period of self-reflection. “Realigning ourselves to what? I always use the metaphor of a sunflower, because a sunflower faces the sun from dawn to sunset, and it is like we are called to look at Christ and realign our lifestyles to what we actually contemplate in the face of Christ. That is the true spirit of Lent for us.”

But this also includes important aspects of our lives such as the environment and social justice. “Thinking of Lent as a finite amount of days is a very restrictive way of looking at it… It’s like a voyage we are doing together, the whole universe. This is a beautiful perspective: the human person as part of something that is much bigger than what you think.”

Fr Mark refers to the Pope’s speech for Lent, in which Francis speaks about the duty people have towards creation. “The Pope says that if we take care of the environment, we are contributing in a practical manner to the redemption not just of ourselves as human beings, but of the whole of creation,” Fr Mark says, describing it as a revolutionary idea. “The Pope is telling us that we are part of the cosmos, and so our contribution, even the smallest one, is actually giving a hand in this process of redemption and of recreation, as God imagined it in the first place.”

With this invitation towards mindful reflection, Fr Mark speaks about the restrictions on meat. “The Church doesn’t take a hard-line decision with its faithful by telling them not to eat meat. But instead, it asks them to keep in mind whether they are consuming meat responsibly… people should ask themselves: where does this meat come from? Is it traceable? And if it’s not, should I be buying it?”

Fr Mark says Christians have a responsibility towards animals, and that this means they do not have the right to exploit animal life just for the sake of “increasing wealth”, which he said is what also happens inside the food industry.

“I try to tell people during my homily that it’s very important for us to know the facts. How is meat being produced? How are the animals being treated? What are the type of chemicals they are being given? What about the way they are kept and the way they are slaughtered?”

Overproduction of food remains the biggest contributor towards food waste, 88 million tonnes of which are generated annually at an estimated cost of €143 billion, according to the EU’s Fusions project.

“We should be careful about what we take inside our bodies, every day, every time we make choices of what goods we consume. Everything is connected – we have to take care of our health, our life,” Fr Mark says. “I would like to see all of the Christians, all people, doing this. Because I believe in the power consumers hold… if as a consumer, I say ‘no’ to your product, then you, as a producer, must change your product.”

Studies by the British NHS are adamant on the negative effects of frequent red meat consumption, which increases the level of chemicals associated with heart disease, strokes or diabetes. Beans, peas and mycoproteins (a form of single cell protein) remain the best substitutes to reduce meat consumption. Foods such as nuts, tofu, and even insects are also considered relatively good alternatives and could reduce the mortality rate by 1% to 2%.

Fr Mark’s advice is to start small but make concrete changes. “First and foremost, you have to become a pillar for change,” he says, taking as example the increasing problem of air pollution in Malta. “If I don’t like the polluted air I’m breathing in, I start using my car less and take the bus and walk, and possibly consider buying a bicycle. It’s all about simple actions, but ones that can be made. The most important thing is for people to actually make them – not to just complain on Facebook while remaining complacent.”

More in Environment