Food and sustainability

One bite-sized solution to our biggest health threats

As a global community, we face significant challenges. Year on year, temperatures spike, surpassing previous records, with devastating effects on ecosystems and human health worldwide. Almost 800m people continue to end each day hungry or short of food, but a staggering 1.9bn of us are now overweight or obese.

As a global community, we face significant challenges. Year on year, temperatures spike, surpassing previous records, with devastating effects on ecosystems and human health worldwide. Almost 800m people continue to end each day hungry or short of food, but a staggering 1.9bn of us are now overweight or obese1,2. Associated diseases including diabetes and heart disease, known collectively as noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), now kill more people each year than HIV, TB, malaria and all other diseases combined. Our oceans are being depleted and polluted, and forests cleared at an unprecedented rate.  This is all in a bid to feed our growing populations – while we continue to waste an estimate 30% of the food we produce, worldwide .

This picture is one of chilling and devastating contrasts. Yet, we must recognise that these complex, global challenges are interrelated and overlapping – as too are their solutions.

Our population’s need for food poses one of the greatest dangers to the health of our planet. As it currently stands, agriculture accounts for between 20%-30% of global greenhouse emissions – comparable to all sea, air and land transport combined3.Acting not only as a significant emitter, agriculture is also affected by a changing climate. Warmer temperatures and changes in the level and frequency of precipitation may benefit the growth of crops in some regions, however, in others, more extreme and frequent weather events, floods and droughts will cause dramatic declines in yields4.These shifting weather patterns pose a significant threat to global food security – having a measureable influence on the quality, quantity, accessibility and affordability of food produced across the globe.

Today’s food systems also have a significant impact on our health – our diets are now the leading risk factor for the global burden of disease. More than one in ten people alive today continue to live in debilitating hunger, while almost one in three of us are now struggling with our weight. In developing countries, there is an increasing double burden of malnutrition – with undernutrition and obesity existing side-by-side, and sometimes in the same household.

In Mexico, for example, the nation’s overweight and obesity levels have increased, with nearly two in every three adults and one in every three school-aged children now affected. On the other hand, undernutrition persists, with 13.6% of children under the age of five stunted due to long-term nutritional inadequacy.

Shared challenges and shared mitigation strategies

At face value, one could be forgiven for perceiving climate change and the rise in obesity and non-communicable diseases as unrelated; separate problems in need of separate solutions. However, the 2016 Food Sustainability Index (FSI) by The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition clearly demonstrates the important links and crucially, the opportunities and solutions, through the interwoven matrix of global food system sustainability.

The FSI highlights how diet and food systems are at the heart of many of our biggest global challenges and establishes a comparable benchmark for countries to measure their progress. The index ranks 25 countries, the Group of 20 (G20) countries plus five nations from regions otherwise unrepresented, across three pillars: sustainable agriculture, nutrition, and food loss and waste.

Historically, these links have been difficult to correlate. By assimilating data and practices from agriculture, nutrition, economics and environmental sustainability relating to climate change and human health, evidence emerges of their interactions. The result is strong evidence for policy makers and legislators to combat not one, but multiple global challenges simultaneously.

For example, the FSI illustrates that in South Africa, Saudi Arabia and the US, the ecological footprint of agriculture, poor land use and the powerful effect of agricultural subsidies contribute to their relatively low sustainable agriculture index scores. Additionally, these nations’ high adoption of fast food, dominance of dietary sugar and short purchasing power for fresh foods contribute to their low nutritional scores. Common food and agricultural policies drive both of these pressing public challenges, but these linkages also highlight common pathways for their collective mitigation.

Setting a benchmark for action

So where do these ‘climate and health’ solutions lie?

One strategy is to reduce the carbon-intensiveness of our diets. The focus on meat, pervasive to the modern, globalised culture and typically more prominent as a country undergoes an economically driven ‘nutrition transition’, is contributing to the chronic disease burden and climbing climate emissions. Total emissions from livestock represent 14.5% of all anthropogenic global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Livestock is also a major consumer of land and water resources. The total land required rearing livestock and devoting crops for animal feed accounts for up to 80% of all agricultural area5Producing 1kg of beef requires about 15,000L of water,10 whereas producing 1kg of rice involves only 3,500L of water. While the world has a limited area of cultivable land, the quest for new acreage to satiate our meat ‘fix’ is driving deforestation. This, in turn, leads to biodiversity loss and depletion of our natural carbon sinks. Furthermore, eating red and processed meat increases the risk of developing some cancers and cardiovascular diseases. Reducing our meat consumption is one of the clearest collective remedies to these diverse but interlinked problems.

Another tangible approach is to look at the size of our dinner plates and a change of attitude from macro to micro. Growing portions have been a subtle global trend of the last half-century. Given that we know larger portions often lead to greater wastage as well as overconsumption, this trend is cause for concern. Global food waste corresponds to four times the amount of food needed to feed people suffering from undernutrition worldwide. If food waste were classified as a country it would rank third behind the USA and China as the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter. The FSI integrates this important issue by evaluating nations across a range of food waste indicators. Measures and programmes designed to reign in portion size could have big benefits on waistlines and emissions.

A third and more conceptual strategy requires a shift of mind more than a shift of menu. Today, even with a growing population, most scientists would agree that the global nutrition picture is one of imbalance, not insufficiency. As such, our food systems must now transition to a focus on ‘quality’. Attention must be directed to the ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘who’. We must rethink the commodification of our food and the systems that produce it.

From threat to opportunity

Given the multitude of social, environmental and health problems being cooked up by our current approaches to food, it seems clear that tomorrow’s problems are in fact on our doorstep – and dinner plates – today. Global indices such as the FSI serve as benchmarking tools, which give us the ability to evaluate climate, obesity and noncommunicable diseases together. With this grounding, we have an opportunity to better address these challenges, both independently and simultaneously.

This article was written by Dr Alessandro Demaio and Ms Natalie Molino in their personal capacities. The views, opinions and positions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of any third party. Additionally, those providing comments on this blogs are doing so in their personal capacity, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of the author.

FAO (2015). The State of Food Insecurity in the World.

WHO (2015). World Health Statistics.

3Smith et al (2014). Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU). In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

4 FAO (2016). The State of Food and Agriculture- Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

5HLPE (2016). “Sustainable agricultural development for food security and nutrition: what roles for livestock?”. HLPE, Roma. 2016.

 This article was written by Dr Alessandro Demaio and Ms Natalie Molino in their personal capacities. The views, opinions and positions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of any third party.

Dr Alessandro Demaio works for the World Health Organization, Geneva

Ms Natalie Molino works for the EAT Foundation, Oslo

(this article has been published first on the blog


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