By Kevin Balanda, Director of Research at the Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH).
Mary McCarthy, Professor, Cork University Business School, UCC
Ewa Halicka, Adjunct Professor, Warsaw University of Life Sciences
Blog for European Public Health Week - Day 4, Sustainable and Healthy Diets
We all have busy lives, meeting constant demands and daily struggles. With that in mind, we understand that not many people may question their food choice when they come to sit down to their evening meal. Before we tuck into dinner after a long day, very few of us wonder what the carbon footprint is for our meat and potatoes. We might question if it is healthy for us, but do we wonder if it is harmful to the planet?
Sustainable diet is a term we will be hearing more about. It’s also today’s theme of the first European Public Health Week. There is now widespread recognition that any discussion of human diets must also consider their impacts on the environment. The term “sustainable diets” is generally used to describe diets that are healthy for humans and the environment. What do they look like? Eating less processed and fatty, salty or sugary foods; moderating how much red and white meat we eat; eating more plant based foods. But they also involve protecting the environment. What does this mean? Choosing seasonal foods; choosing fish sourced from sustainable stocks using sustainable fishing methods; choosing fruit and vegetables that are grown locally; reducing food waste and packaging.
What we eat is shaped by the economic, social and cultural conditions we experience. It is framed by the way food is produced, distributed, marketed and sold to us. Diet-related factors have been identified as the biggest contributor to disease and disability across the globe. Among the biggest threats are the over-consumption of highly-processed foods and foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar.
Current food practices have been irrefutably linked to the damage caused to the planet. For instance; as economies develop, demand increases for animal products, cheap food and foods from far-away places that are available all the year round. Unfortunately, the carbon footprints of many of these products are substantially greater than those of plant foods or locally sourced food. Simply put, getting your lettuce from a local farm is much more environmentally friendly than importing it from far away. The food systems that have developed have led to our diets being made up of highly processed foods that are transported across the globe, leading to increased carbon emissions.
In addition, industrial “solutions” to poor human diets have caused catastrophic damage to the environment. The promotion by industry of palm oil as a healthy alternative to trans fats (banned by many governments) has contributed to the destruction of vast tracts of precious rainforests.
This is unsustainable; current food practices must change. An important first step is to increase awareness of what sustainable diets are and how they can be achieved as part of efforts to implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) across the island.
It’s a huge challenge but we must find ways of transforming our food systems to reduce their harmful impacts on human health and the environment. While we all have a role and must work collaboratively, governments must take the lead with increased regulation on production, marketing and retailing practices if we are to make this a reality.
LINKS AND FURTHER INFO
FAO (2011). Report of International Scientific Symposium Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets. United Against Hunger. 3-5 Nov. 2010. FAO, Rome.
Department of Communication, Climate Change and the Environment
The Lancet Global Health 2016 4, e895-e896DOI: (10.1016/S2214-109X(16)30217-0)