Posted on 9 September 2021 by Anna Stubbendorff (Department of Clinical Sciences) and Jesica López (Centre for Environmental and Climate Science).
The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.
“Our relationship with nature is broken. But relationships can change. When we protect nature – we are Nature protecting itself.”Greta Thunberg
In September 2021, the Food Systems Summit is taking place as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. All 17 SDGs rely to some degree on healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems. Hopefully the interlinkages of food, land use change and healthy diets will target significant outcomes to understand the topic.
Let us begin with the findings of the UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’. Five direct drivers of change in nature are having large relative global impacts, including changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species. Moreover, around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history2. We live in a world with a disconnected conversation. We keep talking in separate ways about what kind of food is less harmful to the environment, apart from food that we need to be healthy. This is the diet-environment-health trilemma.
It is about time to face the evidence of a worldwide unsustainable food system. The food system is complex and not only nutrition or food security are issues that must be tackled, we also need to connect the dots to understand the food system through the lenses of land use change and its effects on climate change and biodiversity loss (e.g. mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects). Why? Because behind the present food production, food supply and food consumption systems, is the land we use for agriculture. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) mentions that about 11% (1.5 billion ha) of the globe’s land surface (13.4 billion ha) is used in crop production (arable land and land under permanent crops). This area represents slightly over a third (36%) of the land estimated to be to some degree suitable for crop production. So, among the environmental impacts of food and agriculture, food accounts for over 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions and it uses 70% of global freshwater withdrawals, where agriculture alone contributes to the 78% of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication (“the process of too many plants growing on the surface of a river, lake, etc., often because chemicals that are used to help crops grow have been carried there by rain” ). Despite the impacts of global agriculture, almost a billion people still suffer from inadequate diets and insecure food supplies. The rapid human population increase, and the development of contemporary production systems has resulted in extensive land conversion and current biodiversity loss. Over the past 12,000 years humans have reshaped the world’s landscape from wilderness to farm, and food lies at the heart of this change.
Now, equally important is to talk about the biodiversity that is crucial for our food and agriculture, i.e. all the species that support our food systems and sustain the people who grow and/or provide our food. Sadly, the foundation of our food system is under severe threat. José Graziano da Silva (FAO’s director from 2012-2019) said “Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk.” In other words, that biodiversity is defined by ourselves, the consumers, or better put, is defined by our diets.
Diets are the link between the environment and human health and we are living under a global planetary diet transition. At present, a too big part of our diets are based on refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats. If we continue with this eating trends, in 29 years, it would be a major contributor to an estimated 80% increase in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from food production and to global land clearing. Additionally, we will have more incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart diseases and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower global life expectancies according to FAO. In fact, unhealthy dietary habits lead to overweight, obesity, malnutrition, and development of chronic diseases. Today 800 million people are malnourished, and the number is increasing. At the same time almost 2 billion people are overweight or obese, and the numbers are increasing as well. Obesity comes with increased health risks but also with increased environmental pressure compared to normal weight. The total impact of obesity on worldwide greenhouse gas emissions may be ~700 megatons per year of CO2eq, which is equivalent to 1.6% of worldwide GHG emissions. To compare, aviation is responsible to 1.9% of all CO2eq.
For example, dietary risks and malnutrition are the leading risk factors of disease and death globally. The most important factors for loss of DALYS (Disability Adjusted Life Years – measure of the overall disease burden including the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability and early death) due to dietary habits are low intake of plant-based foods, such as wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. High intake of red meat, processed meat, sodium, and sugar sweetened beverages are also contributing.
Moreover, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the world and over 400 million adults are living with type 2 diabetes . Annually there are approx. 17 million new cancer cases worldwide, and almost 10 million deaths according to estimates from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Unhealthy diets are a major contributor to development of chronic diseases, and the good news is that many of these diseases can therefore be prevented. It has been estimated that 30-50% of all cancers can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle, 80% of cardiovascular diseases and 90% of all diabetes cases.
Current diets are neither sustainable nor healthy, but the positive side is that the same foods that are good for the planet are also good for our health (with exceptions of course). A diet that is mainly plant-based with high amounts of whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits and restricted amounts of meat has been shown to be positive for health and the environment. The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health called for a global transformation of the food system to address human and planetary health when they published their report in 2019. The commission presented for the first time a reference diet in accordance with global goals for human health and global environmental sustainability, in a growing global population. Scientific target values regarding consumption of 22 food groups were given, based on both environmental and health aspects. If the diet was followed globally, it was estimated that it could feed 10 billion people, decrease malnutrition and overweight and prevent 11 million deaths annually. The EAT-Lancet diet got a lot of attention globally and it has been recommended as a basis when integrating health and environmental aspects into national dietary guidelines.
In conclusion, diets can be both sustainable and healthy. Research suggests that if everyone shifted to a plant-based diet we would reduce global land use for agriculture by 75%. Even cutting out beef and dairy (by substituting chicken, eggs, fish or plant-based food) has a much larger impact than eliminating chicken or fish. Understanding about the environmental impact of our food choices needs to be a new “norm”. Major challenges remain to change the current unhealthy and unsustainable dietary patterns of the global population. But what is most important, is a call for action from all sectors and our recognition as “consumers” that urgent substantial changes are needed to be made in the agricultural and food industry practices to change the food environment.
The Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) is a community of organizations and individuals committed to the urgent need for food and land use transformation to create a healthier planet and healthier people. Website: Food and Land Use Coalition | World Resources Institute (wri.org)
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 UN Food systems Summit. 2021. Official website: https://www.un.org/en/food-systems-summit/about
 UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/
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