In today’s world, one of the greatest challenges we face in both public health and environmental protection is food.
Food production alone has been estimated to be responsible for up to 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and food’s production systems mean it’s one of the largest drivers of global environmental change, contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, and the exploitation and depletion of vital, limited natural resources.
It is widely argued that if the world wishes to gain traction in the fight to curb climate change, the food system as we know it needs to be radically altered. However, there is a more manageable solution. By adjusting daily diet habits, people can make a significant shift in support of human health and environmental sustainability.
Last year, a group of the world’s leading scientists collaborated to publish the first complete scientific review, the EAT–Lancet report, on a so-called sustainable diet in which both personal nutrition and environmental conservation are prioritised. The paper explains what individuals need to do in order to support and accelerate the transformation of current food systems which is necessary to avoid further environmental destruction.
According to the report, diets are inextricably linked with both human health and environmental sustainability. Essentially, the report calls people to action, requesting a reduction in the global consumption of unhealthy foods – such as red meat and sugars – that tend to be eaten excessively in the Western diet, as well as an increase in consumption of healthy foods such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
Youth today don’t want to be told what to do for their own good, but they are willing to be told what they should do for our common good
Fabrice DeClerck, EAT science director and the co-author of the EAT–Lancet Report, says that they “found that simply by transitioning towards a healthy diet, you cut greenhouse gas emissions by agriculture by about half”, as well as impacting the amount of land and freshwater used.
One caveat in the diet outlined by the report is that it does vary based on where you are and what grows most sustainably and efficiently in your location, influenced by climate and other environmental factors. Essentially, what is healthy does not unequivocally align with what is best for the environment, but by first considering the environmental implications before, say, buying a punnet of strawberries in Ireland in January, one can combat that issue.
DeClerck emphasises that “there is tremendous individual choice and through that choice, we can have a significant impact”. This individual choice is found in our ability to focus on a healthy diet, as argued by the EAT–Lancet report. In general, this entails cutting down on meat consumption and transitioning to alternative plant protein options, such as those found in popular, new products such as the Beyond Burger or the Impossible Burger. As it is possible to produce meat in an environmentally friendly and efficient way, it is crucial also to support those food producers and farmers who make such conscious efforts to produce low-impact meals.
A large factor in the food systems transition is in the marketing of healthy diets, such as the one advocated in the EAT–Lancet report. In terms of getting people on board, there are a few challenges. First, DeClerck explains that “there seems to be a greater power in environmental messaging than that there is around health – that youth today don’t want to be told what to do for their own good, but they are willing to be told what they should do for our common good”. By using the success of environmental and climate advocacy to our advantage, those marketing the EAT–Lancet diet can overcome such generational obstacles.
Another issue is a potentially more obvious one, in that many people simply view healthier foods as less enjoyable and tasty than unhealthier foods usually rich in processed fats and sugars. Marcus Collier, an assistant professor in Trinity’s Botany Department, specialises in issues regarding the nature–culture interface and has researched a myriad of different environmental policy issues, including agri-environmental change and resource use.
Collier stresses the role of human behaviour in this issue, explaining that conformity bias can play a positive or negative role with regards to an individual’s environmental impact.
He adds that the media can also have a significant impact on people’s dietary choices, because “when a country starts to earn a bit of money, and people get a bit more affluent, they aspire to the type of diets that they will see on the television and from other rich countries”.
Unfortunately, such diets are the largely sugar and meat-rich meals of Western countries – the exact diet we need to move away from. By highlighting this phenomenon, however, we can combat this and ensure better marketing of the sustainable diet, emphasising that the switch to a healthier diet does not have to be synonymous with a less interesting, bland diet. Both Collier and DeClerck advocate Jamie Oliver’s programme to create better diets for school children, and the Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change, as prime examples of healthier, more sustainable diets that are also fun and exciting.
But ultimately, while advocating the need to cut down on global meat consumption is crucial, it may still not be enough. DeClerck argues that there needs to be an active conversation about how we can support farmers in the transition to sustainable food production practices so as to secure climate protection and biodiversity conservation.
When a country starts to earn a bit of money, and people get a bit more affluent, they aspire to the type of diets that they will see on television
Warning against further isolation of the agricultural community, he explains that “farmers are feeling that they are getting blamed for producing poor quality food, for not protecting the environment”, while politicians and consumers simultaneously expect them to produce the fastest-growing, cheapest food possible.
Providing the coal industry in the US as an example of the kind of isolation we want to avoid forcing on farmers, DeClerk argues that “unless those of us who care about healthy, sustainably produced foods figure out how we reach out to farmers to communicate that we understand that they are our most important solution space and that we risk further creating a divide, we are just going to slow down action”. With this, DeClerck emphasises the role of an interdisciplinary, systems-based approach in the necessary shift in today’s food production systems.
The long term and societal benefits of switching our eating patterns to more sustainable diets cannot be underestimated. Prof Anna Davies, the principal investigator of SHARECITY, a project devoted to assessing the sustainability of urban food-sharing activities in 100 cities from around the world, including Dublin, London, Barcelona and San Francisco, says that she has “found that while much current discussion of sustainable ‘diets’ focuses on individual health and environmental impacts, this ignores how food can (depending on how it is grown/prepared/consumed) be a catalyst for many social benefits, from building social networks, capacity and cohesion to developing a stronger social support infrastructure for everyone, including those most vulnerable in society”.
Indeed, it is clear that rather than focusing on the individual benefits of changing our diets on the environment, when viewed on a broader, global scale, our eating habits can play a vital role – as collective movement – in the future of our planet, making it greener and richer.