Almost monthly, news publications report on studies about the health benefits of coffee, dark chocolate, red wine or other things that many people eat or drink every day. These reports are often followed within weeks by headlines stating the exact opposite.
I am concerned. Not about coffee, chocolate and wine, but about science and reporting. Conflicting reports destroy public confidence in science. Many people are starting to tune out or dismiss the headlines. This won’t do. People deserve to know about nutrition and what impact it has on their health.
Let’s not take public interest in nutrition and health for granted. Today’s food and health issues are too important. And tomorrow’s issues, well, they might call for a total overhaul of the way we do just about everything related to food production and consumption. We can’t hide from the fact that what we eat has a significant impact on the environment and, as a result, on our society. It could make or break our future. Industry, academia and policymakers should work together to restore public confidence in nutrition and deliver more sustainable food systems.
Tipping the scale
The global population is growing. With an estimated nine billion people on the planet by 2050, demand for nutritious food will soar and put unprecedented strain on natural resources. We already use enormous amounts of raw materials, land, energy and water to produce, distribute and (quite frankly) waste food. Current food systems both cause and are affected by issues such as pollution, climate change, wealth disparity, conflict and migration. And yet, these same systems fail to deliver enough nutrition for people on our planet today.
This is a crisis. Good nutrition is the foundation of human and socio-economic health. From the moment we are conceived – in fact, even before conception – nutrition influences so much about us. What we eat during the first 1,000 days of life is critical for physical and mental development. Proper nutrition has a positive effect on lifelong productivity.
All people, no matter where they live or what their socio-economic status, should have the right to a healthy diet. That means we need to upgrade our food systems now, and further stimulate local production of nutritious, affordable and aspirational food. We must find a way to have healthy diets for all within planetary boundaries.
Fixing our food systems
To help reach a scientific consensus, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health has brought together leading scientists who are looking at these dilemmas. In 2019 they will issue a report with recommended dietary guidelines that will offer insight into these issues and could help policymakers and the private sector reimagine food and agriculture for greater productivity, quality, less waste and less environmental impact.
The report is a good step towards improving nutrition and health while addressing environmental concerns.
However, there are some issues that may not be addressed by the commission’s report. Food is often personal and cultural. It can even be aspirational. From taste and experience to price and convenience, there are many factors that affect what people eat. These can be drastically different from one place to another. For example, the average person in Asia eats 150kg of white rice a year while the average American consumes about 12kg. If food recommendations and new products fail to consider cultural differences such as this, sustainability and availability hardly matter.
The private sector can work on solutions that fit well with regional preferences. For example, in Asia people may want to try fortified rice which looks, cooks and tastes the same as white rice but has more micronutrients.
Change is not easy, for individuals or at scale. Science should be our North Star. It can guide us towards better personal decisions and better business decisions. But we must work together across sectors and we need to acknowledge the reality of cultural differences. Yes, business has become more global and, as a society, we are trying to fix global problems. But cultural differences are not only a reality – they are the spice of life, so let’s create new regional food systems that work for everyone.