A shift in diets is central to tackling obesity and climate change, according to Eric Lambin, a member of the European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors.
By HORIZON STAFF
Human health is inextricably linked to food and the environment. The world, including Europe, faces emergencies on all three fronts.
The current food system is damaging people’s health by contributing to obesity and destroying the environment by, among other things, causing greenhouse-gas emissions and biodiversity loss.
Given the high stakes and challenges, Horizon Magazine plans a five-part series of articles over the remainder of 2023 on “sustainable food”. The aim is to highlight the promises of bringing about fundamental improvements in this area including with the help of research and innovation.
Today’s start of the series sets the stage by featuring an interview with Eric Lambin, a professor of geography and sustainability science at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium.
Lambin is also a member of the European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors (GCSA), which produced a June 2023 Scientific Opinion entitled “Towards Sustainable Food Consumption”. The opinion was requested by European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides.
The ensuing articles in the series will focus on dietary shifts, urban food systems, the microbiome and the role of legislation.
1. Food, health and sustainability have been linked for thousands of years. Why should people today pay any particular attention to this area?
We are now facing a public health crisis – with widespread overweight, obesity and malnutrition issues – and a global environmental crisis.
Today, livestock accounts for more than 14% of human-induced greenhouse-gas emissions, which is more than the emissions from all the world’s cars and trucks. Production of meat – especially beef – drives climate change directly by emitting methane and indirectly by converting tropical forests for pastures and animal-feed production. Forest conversion not only adds to emissions but also causes biodiversity loss. We imagine most of the green fields we drive past are crops for humans to eat, whereas in fact two-thirds of the world’s agricultural lands are grazing lands and 40% of the world’s cropland is for animal feed.
Our Scientific Opinion calls for system-wide changes to correct this.
2. What would a more sustainable food system mean concretely?
For most Europeans, diets should be more plant-based as they are often too high in meat and dairy products, which have much higher environmental footprints than plant-based foods.
To shift towards a healthier and more sustainable diet, it is recommended to consume more legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds and less meat – especially red and processed meat – fewer foods rich in saturated fat, salt and sugar, fewer snacks with poor nutritional qualities and fewer ultra-processed foods, sugary drinks and alcoholic drinks.
For animal-based foods, we should prioritise the consumption of sustainably sourced fish and seafood.
We also need to reduce food waste to minimise the unnecessary use of resources for growing, harvesting, transporting and packaging food that ends up in landfills.
3. What role can the EU play to ensure that food is healthier and greener?
The Scientific Opinion recommends that policy measures aiming to change consumer behaviour should focus on the whole “food environment”. That is anywhere where people obtain, eat and discuss their food.
So policy measures should address not only consumers but also food providers, producers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers. The competences needed to accelerate a transition towards more sustainable and healthy diets are distributed at all levels of governance, from the EU to Member States, regions and municipalities.
The EU can provide guidelines, adjust subsidies, develop labels, expand its current carbon-pricing scheme, among other things, and encourage Member States to act at their level.
4. What is the GCSA recommending in terms of EU action in this field?
The EU should adopt a mix of complementary policies based on pricing, information and regulation.
Healthy and sustainable diets should be the easiest and most affordable choice. EU Member States should consider new incentives including lower value-added tax on fruits and vegetables as well as disincentives such as meat and sugar taxes.
The provision of trusted information about the environmental and health impacts of different foods facilitates healthy and sustainable decision-making by consumers. This is about such things as food literacy, national dietary guidelines and front-of-pack labels.
New policy measures should also make healthy and sustainable diets more available and accessible. This means, for example, the prominent placement of healthy products in retail outlets.
5. What role does scientific advice, including from the GCSA, play in policymaking?
Scientific advice supports evidence-based policymaking by analysing scientific findings on a given topic, based on high-quality science.
Scientific advisors are intermediaries between science and policy. They need to demonstrate their trustworthiness by following a transparent and an impartial process to analyse evidence. The GCSA works closely with the Science Advice for Policy by European Academies – or SAPEA – consortium. SAPEA assembles multi-disciplinary groups of the best European experts on the topics for which advice is requested by the College of Commissioners.
On matters such as food systems, for which strong vested interests exert influence on policymaking, it is essential to provide independent, science-based recommendations.
6. How can consumers help drive change?
Consumers can contribute through well-informed purchasing decisions that are consistent with their values.
But models of behavioural change recognise that motivation alone isn’t sufficient to modify diets. Consumers also need to have the capability and opportunity to adopt new behaviours.
Consumer behaviours are influenced both by personal factors – such as taste preferences, attitudes and knowledge – and by external factors, mainly price, information and social and cultural norms.
All factors must be addressed. Hence the need for a raft of diverse measures targeting the whole food environment that complement each other.
7. What should be the balance between international and local food trade?
Evidence shows that locally produced food isn’t always more sustainable than food imported from abroad. For example, some vegetables grown in Europe in greenhouses may use more energy input than vegetables grown in Africa.
Yet, to promote sustainable consumption, the EU could restrict imports of food commodities from places where food production causes major environmental damage – for example, foods from biodiversity-rich and carbon-dense ecosystems, water-demanding crops produced in water-scarce areas and seafood sourced from unsustainably managed stocks.
Some of these restrictions are already covered by new EU legislation on deforestation-free products.
8. How can the EU help ensure that small farmers get treated fairly?
Small farms may struggle to adapt to new regulations as they may lack the capacity to invest in new practices and production systems.
Yet they play a key role in some European regions for providing food, maintaining cultural landscapes and keeping rural areas socially attractive.
Small farmers aren’t always as well represented in multi-stakeholder policy dialogues as their large counterparts. Therefore, new policy measures should anticipate possible adverse effects on small farms and be monitored and periodically reviewed to ensure they don’t have unintended consequences.
9. What are the main social and political challenges to change?
As in every transformative process, there is resistance from vested interests who benefit from the status quo. It is critical to create an environment that allows all stakeholders to work towards the goal of healthy and sustainable food.
This approach may also help to overcome opposition from those who profit from the current system, including some large private-sector organisations with powerful voices. For example, food-industry representatives have much more resources to defend their case than, say, future generations, thereby creating an imbalance in the debate.
Civil-society organisations have an important role in representing the voiceless.
10. What role does animal well-being have in all this?
Animal welfare is a key ethical dimension of sustainability. It is also central to a “One Health” perspective that integrates the health of people, animals and the environment.
People shift to plant-based diets for health, environmental and/or animal-welfare motives. All three motivations are equally important and they point towards the same direction: decreasing the consumption of animal-sourced products and decreasing intensive animal farming.
This creates an opportunity for companies with a focus on quality products and high animal- welfare standards. For policy, a meat tax framed as an “animal-welfare levy” might be more socially acceptable than an environmental tax.
This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.