Linking food, health and the environment provide the most powerful tool to stimulate societal shifts.
Because the food system interacts with many other domains, citizens have the power, by ripple effect, to change the system for the better.
Sustainable diets and consumption patterns shine as a win-win solution to two global contemporary issues: the severe Western nutrition situation and the environmental crisis. Linking food, health and the environment indeed provide the most powerful tool to stimulate societal shifts, and therefore to draw a sunnier future for the next generations.
An inconvenient truth on our plates
European households demonstrate growing concern about food safety and health, their awareness having been raised by recent food scandals. Yet, their dietary habits rarely meet nutritional requirements.[i] Giving preference to ready-to-eat pizza, sugary drinks and processed chicken wings, Europeans tend to compromise their whole grain and greens intake for convenient but nutrient-poor food products. The increased consumption of meat, eggs and dairy results in an excessive intake of protein, up to 70% higher than the intake recommended by the World Health Organisation. While the quality of the food they ingest regresses, their daily energy intake outpaces national dietary guidelines.
Not only are these dietary patterns partly responsible for the contemporary obesity crisis and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), but they also impose a significant burden on the environment. The European project LiveWell for LIFE estimates that 29% of total European greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions are food-related, and that European needs for crops and pastures accounted for the deforestation of a surface one to two times the size of Belgium between 1990 and 2008.
However, an unfortunate disconnection persists between food, health and sustainability. The bridge between food and health has become common knowledge, but seldom are European societies meditating on the more complex food-health-environment nexus. The French national public radio service France Inter dedicated a whole day to French food choices in November 2017, without saying a word about the underpinning interdependence between our eater’s habits and our ecosystem. Most European national dietary guidelines promote a food pyramid that illustrates nutritional aspects only, failing to provide a more integrative model that would couple health with environmental dimensions. The traffic-light system introduced in 2013 on British food packages fosters healthier dietary patterns. But what’s the point of eating healthily if the eater thrives on a dying Earth?
Building bridges between the dimensions of food, health and environmental wellbeing is both an imperative and an opportunity to be seized for our societies, as described by Johan Rockström in his work on diets and planetary boundaries.[ii]
With your food spending, you can make a daily vote for a smarter food system and a more sustainable society.
A policy orientation to build these bridges would need to account for no less than six of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the framework defined by the United Nations in 2015 to shape “the Future We Want” by 2030. This might seem hopeless. However, modifying our food habits would incrementally re-shape the food system, therefore addressing the objectives of improving nutrition and agricultural systems (Goals 2, 12, 14 and 15), while also tackling climate change (Goals 13, 14 and 15) and ensuring well-being for all (Goal 3). Let’s say you adopt a sustainable and healthy diet. Your intake is high in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and low in fat, salt and sugar; this diet drastically lowers your health risk factors. You give up air-freighted fruits and vegetables for regional food products, which decreases your carbon emissions, thus lessening your contribution to ocean acidification and atmospheric aerosol loading. Buying at the bulk section of a local store helps you to rationalize your food purchases and avoid food waste and excessive packaging, and energy savings will occur as well.
With your food spending, you can make a daily vote for a smarter food system and a more sustainable society. Reorienting food and purchasing habits counters the influence of powerful lobbies, while also reconnecting prices with products’ real value. And because this food system interacts with many other domains, citizens have the power, by ripple effect, to change the system for the better. To quote Brent Loken, from the EAT Foundation, “If we get it right on food, we can get it right on everything else.”
A focus on diets shows that health and sustainability can go hand in hand. Instead of viewing diets only through the lens of nutrition and health, we can shift towards a sustainable diet strategy. This could enable every human being to contribute to sustainable development, and a world in which we fulfill “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Report).
[i] While this article focuses on Europe, the same features also apply to other high-income-countries, and increasingly to middle-income countries such as China or Brazil. This phenomenon has been conceptualized by Barry Popkin as a “Nutrition Transition” and “Westernization” of the diets.
[ii] EAT Fondation, “EAT JOHAN ROCKSTROM BB 140619”, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=56&v=rxSvlNquBuY; ROCKSTRÖM, J., J.D. SACHS, “Sustainable Development and Planetary Boundaries. Background paper for the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda”, Sustainable Development Solutions Network. A global initiative for the United Nations, 2013, available from http://unsdsn.org/files/2013/05/130508-Sustainable-Development-and-PlanetaryBoundaries.pdf; ROCKSTRÖM, J. et al., “A safe operating space for humanity”, in Nature 461: 472-475, 2009.