Serving up sustainability on a plate

Please bear with me for a moment. I’m going to throw two questions at you and I want you to take some time to think through them, if only for a few seconds.

The first question is, do you think you eat healthy?

It’s a broad question I know. And the way you answer it will depend on a number of things. Do you know what eating for health looks like? What do you believe constituents a healthy ‘diet’? Where do you access your information on nutrition and health? Is good health something you value? Is eating healthy important to you?

If you answered no, what is stopping you? Do you aspire to eating healthier but find it hard due to various factors such as time, cost, access, availability, taste etc.? What if it was easier to do so? What if the default option was a healthy choice?

Globally, countries develop dietary guidelines and national food guides to help inform the general population on what encompasses a healthy diet. This is informed by rigorous scientific research and the latest evidence. When Australia updated their dietary guidelines in 2011 (released in 2013) it was based on a report that compiled 55,000 pieces of peer-reviewed scientific literature and a comprehensive food modelling system. The role of the dietary guidelines is to provide official evidence based information and advice on what to eat for good health. The guidelines then underpin interventions and policy development and ideally, should be widely disseminated to the public.

Based on this, a healthy diet is one that is high in fruit and vegetables and wholegrain cereals, has moderate amounts of reduced fat milk and dairy products and meat, fish, chicken, eggs, legumes/beans and nuts and seeds and minimal amounts of processed foods which are high in fat, salt and sugar.

And here’s the second question, do you think you eat sustainably?

Once again, the way you answer will depend on various things. What is your understanding of a sustainable diet? How important is it to you that what you eat has minimal impact on the environment? If you knew the answers to these questions, would you prioritise the environment over things like taste, convenience and cost?

A sustainable diet is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as “[t]hose diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources”.

In short, we know that there are some foods or farming practices that use a lot of energy, water and land, have a high ecological impact and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Meat and dairy carry a high environmental footprint, processed foods are resource heavy, and a red flag is also being waved for many fish stocks.

Are you still with me? I’m sure for some of you making choices about what you eat for environmental reasons may be a new concept and not one you’re really ready to consider.

What if I told you that a healthy diet actually aligns with a sustainable diet? The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN) created the food and environment double pyramid which demonstrates what a nutritionally sound diet is alongside one that has minimal environmental impact. You can check out the double pyramid here. The Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) is also doing a great deal of work in this area and outlines characteristics of a diet that is good for health and the planet. What these both show, is that health promoting foods are also the ones that have little impact on the environment.

It’s clear that the evidence is mounting on what a healthy and sustainable diet is, yet government action is slow. Some countries have started incorporating sustainability into their food based dietary guidelines as a way of informing people about what a sustainable diet looks like. Sweden, Brazil, Qatar and Germany are trail blazing with forward thinking governments, highlighting integrated dietary approaches that align healthy diets with those that have less environmental impact. You can check out a good summary of their recommendations here.

Both Australia and the United States tried to integrate sustainability messages into the most recent update of their national dietary guidelines. There were quite a lot of similarities across both countries so I’m going to briefly surmise the process and outcome.  Both appointed an official group of experts to lead the process. Both compiled the latest evidence available and released extensive reports. Both acknowledged the links between health and the environment and sustainability recommendations were included in the draft report.  A consultation process with the public then ensued. There was considerable backlash from many groups, notably industry, and both countries removed sustainability from their dietary guidelines (note: it is mentioned in the Appendix of Australia’s final report).  A clear message emerged. Sustainability was outside the scope of dietary guidance and the focus should remain on nutrition and health.

I am well aware that aligning health and environmental objectives presents many challenges and here are some of them:

  1. Australian’s on average, eat a lot of meat. The OECD figures tell us that as a whole, the average Australian consumed 93 kilograms of meat in 2013 (interestingly ranked higher than the United States). This is a lot of meat. It could be reasonable to say that as a nation, we have a deep seeded history and culture with eating meat. The good news is that there is a lot of room for improvement.
  2. In 2015 Australia’s number one agricultural export was beef.  As incomes rise in developing countries, these emerging economies are adopting Western-style diets and increasingly consuming more meat and dairy Therefore, a huge market is opening up for countries like Australia who have a thriving livestock industry. This presents us with enormous economic implications at a national level if (when?) consumers embrace more plant based diets.
  3. We know that information alone doesn’t change behaviour. There is so much information (and misinformation) out there about healthy eating, and yet diet-related diseases are on the rise, particularly overweight and obesity. Would including sustainability in our national food guide change people’s behaviour? Probably not. But what it does say is that our government takes the issue seriously and is committed to doing something about it. And as I highlighted earlier, dietary guidelines underpin program and policy development which has far reaching implications for our food system.
  4. The food industry are powerful players and we know they hold a lot of sway when it comes to influencing governmental decisions that potentially affect their profit margins.
  5. Lastly, while I sit here and advocate for change, I’m mindful of the farmers who make a living from farming cattle. Including sustainability messages in dietary guidelines, will inevitably, have a knock on effect for them. We need to be coming up with solutions to these potential social and economic issues, because maintaining our production and consumption patterns is undeniably, unsustainable.

The challenges are great, but the risks are greater. Once again, I want you to take a few moments to ponder this.

What if we approached things a little differently? What if instead of trying to change knowledge, attitudes and beliefs around sustainability, we made it easier for people to make the necessary changes? What if we built a structure that enabled everyone to live a healthy and sustainable life? This is where food policy change is integral in creating environments that promote and support individual and ecological health. This would mean radical changes – but isn’t that what we need?

One thing we know for certain is that the planet’s resources are finite. Yet we live and consume in a way that takes little regard for them. It’s time to deliver integrated guidance and embed health and sustainability goals. It’s time to nurture an essential shift in what, and how we eat. It’s time our government committed to a healthy, sustainable and fair future. It’s time for shared policy frameworks that address health, the environment, social and economic objectives together. It’s time for an overarching body that looks at the entire food and farming system as a whole, and not just in silos. Whose with me on this?

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2 Replies to “Serving up sustainability on a plate”

  1. Thanks for this piece Kylie. So very insightful. I love that you’ve approached this somewhat sensitive and often divisive subject with objectivity and a clear appreciation of the impacts of action and inaction on all concerned. We need to work together, finding solutions that will ultimately benefit everyone and contribute to our shared sustainable future. I’m with you!

    1. That’s fabulous to hear Kylie. I appreciate that you read the entire post and took the time to comment! I didn’t even realise I had comments until I uploaded my latest post this morning. The only way forward is to work together and that means having all relevant people at the table, not just the most powerful and influential. Canada is doing some great work trying to progress a national food policy that addresses health, environmental, social and economic goals. You can check it out here – https://www.canada.ca/en/campaign/food-policy.html?utm_campaign=not-applicable&utm_medium=vanity-url&utm_source=canada-ca_food-policy

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