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29 October 2019

Sustainable diets: A matter of life and death

Photo: Artistlike / Pixabay.

Most of us eat poorly and it is killing us. Only 33% of the global population gets the minimum dietary diversity. Over 6 million adults and 120 million children are obese. In fact, more people die as a consequence of unhealthy diets than from smoking or AIDS.

”We produce enough food to meet the consumption needs of everyone, but still over 820 million people are suffering from chronic hunger. And this number has been increasing for the past three years,” said Ahmed Raza, Nutrition and Food Systems Officer at FAO during the World Food Day 2019 event hosted by the Swedish FAO Committee and SIANI.

The event highlighted the importance of multi-sector cooperation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 2, making sustainable and nutritious food accessible for all. The seminar offered a Swedish perspective on the global food security and provided examples of joint measures that can move the world closer to the zero-hunger target.

“It is not something we can solve with a single reform, we have to have a holistic view on policy and politics. It is about having a just society with equal opportunities for all, and that is a huge challenge for Sweden and for the world,” said Per Callenberg, State Secretary to the Minister for Rural Affairs of Sweden.

Employing such a holistic approach all the way from the global to the household level is crucial as there are families with members who are obese whilst others are undernourished. Social and economic inequality has a big effect on nutrition because poor and vulnerable people can’t afford fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other high-quality nutrient-dense foods.

So, how to change the way we eat?

Healthy sustainable diets are not only key to human health, but also to economic development. Eva-Charlotte Ekström, Professor in Global Nutrition at Uppsala University noted that the conversation about sustainable diets has been largely focused on the environmental aspects facilitated by the EAT-Lancet report. Social and economic aspects have not received as much attention.

EAT-Lancet recommends eating more whole grains, vegetables and fruits, avoid added sugar and saturated fats, consume more legumes and nuts and reduce consumption of animal-derived foods. Agriculture also needs to stop land clearing entirely and establish zero net emission production systems. However, both health and environmental conditions vary greatly between the regions, and so their economic profiles too. “All in all, switching to the planetary health diet coined by EAT-Lancet will reduce global mortality and greenhouse gas emissions, but lower-income countries will need more cropland, freshwater and fertilizers to comply with these recommendations. In other words, converting to this diet will not deliver equal benefits across the world,“ said Eva-Charlotte Ekström.

Improving the affordability of fruits, vegetables and nuts should be a public policy priority in every country. Currently, 70% of people in low-income countries simply do not have the money to eat nutrient-dense healthy foods.

Anna Richert, a food expert at WWF, mentioned during the seminar that humor can be very effective in changing people’s behavior. WWF also aims to engage with new target audiences and for demystifying misconceptions about sustainable diets. “We decided to work with the Swedish Olympic Committee and to involve athletes. We know that people who follow athletes eat a lot of meat to fulfill their protein needs, acting as influencers athletes can help us address the myth that you need to eat meat to stay strong and healthy.”

Lovisa Martin Marais, Nutrition Manager at Lantmännen, also stressed the importance of research and behavioural science. Understanding how, what and when people eat is crucial if we are to offer something they would want to consume. “For most people – taste is king!” she said. Bean pasta by Lantmännen is a successful example of this strategy – the company brought consumers sustainable and healthy legumes in the form of pasta, which is familiar, popular and easy to cook. “However, at the end of the day we do not eat one product, we eat a whole diet and we need to work on many different products.”

While affluent countries like Sweden consume too much protein people in poorer countries, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, do not eat enough of it. Insects could provide a source of cheap and low-carbon protein.

“Insects have been a permanent ingredient of sustainable diets in many countries through history and I believe that we will be able to get over the yuck factor. At least there is a lot interest about eating insects in Sweden. The challenge is how to make their production sustainable, attractive and profitable,” according to Sofia Boqvist, Associate Professor, Director for AgriFoSe 2030.

Sofia Boqvist reports that working with a theory of change approach has been very fruitful because it allows for an early on engagement with various stakeholders like local politicians and civil society when developing multi-stakeholder collaborations for achieving long-term goals. Some of the results from the AgriFoSe 2030 include the development of new contemporary recipes with insects, the addition of protein-rich insect powder to school meals and the establishment of a trading marketplace for insects – small steps that tweak the system and facilitate an enabling environment for the production and consumption of insects.

As Per Callenberg rightfully pointed out, achieving sustainable diets will require system change and all the stakeholders involved in the food system need to do their part simultaneously across various scales. Everyone can contribute by making healthy sustainable food choices a habit. Start by looking up your country’s dietary guidelines, consider the environmental impact of your food, eat in the company and cook at home.

Watch the recording of the World Food Day 2019 seminar

Find out what you and other actors can do to improve the sustainability of our diets at the FAO’s World Food Day webpage