May 22, 2013

Reflections from Workshop on Sustainable Diets

Allison Righter, MSPH, RD

Allison Righter, MSPH, RD

How are environment and nutrition connected?

Environment and nutrition, ecology and health. They’re all connected. And getting people to talk seriously about those connections is an urgent priority.

The Institute of Medicine hosted a landmark event earlier this month co-hosted by its Food Forum and Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research and Medicine, two seemingly disparate groups. The workshop, “Sustainable Diets: Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet” sought to break down these silos that too often exist between the environmental and nutritional health sciences by encouraging dialogue on the food and nutrition policy implications of the increasing environmental constraints on the food system. Resisting the urge to offer responses to every single session, I’ve instead summarized below three thematic questions that emerged from the workshop with some of my own reflections.

What are the best strategies for quantifying and communicating the complex environmental and public health implications of dietary patterns?

This one’s a doozy. In order to understand the trade-offs between human and environmental health and to develop more sustainable dietary guidance, we need a solid foundation of empirical data that quantifies the various impacts of specific food choices. The first half of Day One addressed this issue with speakers who described many different strategies for measuring land use, greenhouse emissions, water use and other environmental impacts of eating patterns. Scientists have made tremendous progress in this area, but it’s clear to me that we still have a long way to go, especially in capturing and communicating the broad spectrum of externalities. We need to continue challenging scientists to adopt a more robust, systems approach to understanding and measuring how food impacts not just one health or environmental outcome but all possible outcomes. For more insight on this, I encourage you to watch the videos of presentations by Frank Mitloehner (UC Davis), Emily Cassidy (University of Minnesota), Christian Peters (Tufts University), and Martin Heller (University of Michigan).

What is a sustainable level of meat consumption, and what role do initiatives like Meatless Monday play in changing behavior?

When exploring the health and environmental trade-offs of dietary patterns, meat and fish emerge as the two main foods of concern and confusion. My colleague Jillian Fry shares her reflections about how the workshop addressed seafood in her blogpost, so I want to briefly address the issue of meat. While meat can provide high-quality protein and other important nutrients as part of a healthy diet, we know that diets high in meat, particularly red and processed meat, can increase many health risks.  And on the production side: while animal agriculture is necessary for a sustainable system, our industrial livestock production methods pose serious threats to natural resources, ecosystems, animal welfare, community well-being, and more. For optimal nutritional and environmental health, most experts agree that developed countries should reduce their relative consumption of meat and animal products; but to exactly what amount remains uncertain. Defining a sustainable level of meat consumption, I believe, is a critical issue that we must continue unraveling.

In discussions about meat consumption and potentially effective solutions to shifting eating patterns from meat-centric to more plant-based, Meatless Monday got quite a bit of attention. While Dr. Mitloehner strongly disagreed with this approach, others such as Dr. Peters, Ms. Cassidy, and Dr. George Loewenstein (Carnegie Mellon) insisted that we (and the environment) would all be better off with more meatless meals. CLF has served as a technical and scientific resource to Meatless Monday for the past ten years, and we believe that the campaign offers a simple approach for starting and maintaining reduced-meat eating behaviors over time.

How can we ensure that issues of environmental sustainability are considered when forming national nutrition policy?

After numerous sessions highlighting current and emerging knowledge on the aforementioned issues, the workshop shifted to exploring options and approaches to enabling sustainable food choices. We heard from Tim Lang (City University London) about strategies used in the European Union; from Jennifer Wilkins (Cornell University) about research priorities related to the connections among dietary guidance, environmental protection, and human health; and from our own Kate Clancy about new policy approaches for sustainable diets that are transformative and interconnected across agencies.

What I took away from these discussions was that we must take advantage of the opportunity to influence the upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans so that they include language about environmental sustainability. Even though we know Americans are notoriously bad at actually following federal nutrition recommendations on an individual level, the Dietary Guidelines can be useful for influencing broader level changes and educating the public about the food system and its reliance on environmental health. As Dr. Clancy explained, Dietary Guidance that includes this kind of language would signal that the government recognizes these links among health, environment, and food security, and its role to provide the best food and dietary advice for the public (who then recognizes its role in conserving natural resource through food choices.) Because the Dietary Guidelines also set the standards for nutrition assistance programs (school meals, WIC, SNAP education, etc.), they have an enormous potential to shape goals and public perceptions and to promote sustainable food systems. A win-win-win situation. So I urge you to look at the timeline for the development of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and stay tuned for the period of public comments. And in the meantime, we will all work to continue the momentum started by this workshop in breaking down silos to promote productive interdisciplinary discussion. This is critical if we want to build a food system that promotes healthy people and a healthy planet.

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