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Dietitian Dish: Food Sustainability (April 2021)

And just like that, we’re back!

Hey Mountaineers! I don’t know about you, but this last month flew by! With the semester coming to a close (due dates and finals looming...deep breath!), I imagine you feel the same way, too. I know how important this time is for you to focus on your academic success, but I wanted to chat about something pretty important this month. So, I hope during a study break or your daily walk to get some fresh air, you can take some time to help me spread the word about a topic that not only impacts you and me, but people all around the world. That topic is food sustainability.

Why Talk About Food Sustainability?

The topic of food sustainability — our global food system and the implications of each aspect — isn’t a new issue, but one with more supporting evidence in recent years with information related to the sustainability of our environment, our economy and our social systems. Investigators are attributing this renewed interest in the global food system to concerns related not only to the environmental impact but to equity concerns, trade, and health-related concerns. (Just to name a few. Literally... there are so many more considerations, but I know you have to get back to the books, so I want to highlight a couple!) (Bene, et al., 2019).

You might ask: With all these concerns, where are we at with solving this big issue? Great question! Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers. You see, this complex topic can’t be solved with a “more-food approach,” but must be addressed through actions that consider the environmental impact, the socioeconomic footprint and how food is produced and distributed (Bene, et al., 2019). Basically, we (the U.S.) and countries around the globe can’t just keep on, keeping on. (Hope you enjoyed that little idiom...shoutout to Clark Terry!) We must come together to create an approach that reflects all our needs and values — not just the ones that we subscribe to and benefit from. Consider this blog post informational, but also a call to action, if you will! I know, I know, you have projects and studying to get back to and might not have time to solve world issues, but stay with me! Because we also are going to talk about simple strategies you and I can do to make a difference, no matter how small.

Let's define a couple things first!

We know now that addressing concerns related to our global food system is extremely complex and involves environmental, social and technological methods. (Again, to name a few!) (Eakin, et al., 2017). But before we get to individual strategies you and I can consider, I think it's important to first define concepts such as food systems, food security and food sustainability to begin the work of supporting global longevity.

Food security is defined by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) as existing “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (Eakin, et al., 2017). Sustainability generally is defined with several different working definitions across organizations and investigators as the “pursuit of social equity and justice, human welfare and environmental integrity” (Eakin, et al., 2017). This working definition can be applied to the definition of food sustainability created by a group within the United Nations, which states: “sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Strategic Imperatives, 1987).

Why do we need to act now?

OK. Now that we covered some definitions (don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz following this blog, I promise!), let’s get into why we need to act now. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is a plethora of literature and evidence that details that the world’s current food supply chain and system are detrimental to the environment in that greenhouse gas emissions, unsustainable water extraction, pollution, deforestation and biodiversity loss are all results of the current infrastructure (WHO, 2005). It goes without saying that clean air and water, nutrient dense food and a sustainable environment are essential for the well-being of humans today and humans to come. But what can we do about it? Keep reading!

Act NOW!

In order to make a shift towards meeting food security and food sustainability as defined by groups within the United Nations and the WHO, both big and small actions can help. Essentially more humans across the world need to be fed more nutrient dense foods with less environmental impact (Garnett, 2013). While conceptualizations of the problem and actions proposed vary and are complex, the following have been proposed as individual human actions that can support larger policy changes taking place (meaning, you and I can start implementing these things now):

The EAT-Lancet Commission is a group of scientists from around the world that have come together and created focus areas that impact all humans around the globe and their food systems. The commission created what is called the “planetary health diet,” which recommends people consume fruits, nuts, vegetables, legumes and more while reducing red meat and sugar consumption. This will “improve the availability, access and affordability of healthy foods while disincentivizing the consumption of unhealthy and unsustainable foods” (Willett, et al., 2019; EAT, 2019). In essence, humans shifting towards consuming more plant sources can have a large, global impact, including decreasing freshwater withdrawals and deforestation (Rockström, et al., 2015).

While incorporating more fruits and vegetables into our diets can have global benefits, decreasing meat consumption can also impact the world through decreasing greenhouse gas emissions (Harvard, 2015). More specially, reducing beef production could impact energy and water needs (Harvard, 2015). Additionally, substantial literature also points to the need to decrease consumption of various species of seafood due to the overfishing that is taking place and the lack of management in how these species are farmed. This is connected to harming marine life. And when marine life is damaged, other environmental systems are damaged as well (Garcia, et al., 2003). Common overfishing species include various types of crab, eel, salmon, shrimp and tuna (Harvard, 2015).

Finally, the consumption of locally grown produce supports the goal of consuming more nutrient dense foods due to the likely higher nutrient content of local product, as well as supports local farms’ ability to grow a variety of product, leading to biodiversity and more globally, food security (Shindelar, 2015).

So, what do you think? I don’t know about you, but shopping for local produce, trying new plant-based recipes and checking out new seafood species to avoid the overfished ones can be small steps that have a huge impact. If you’d like to know more about what we talked about here, visit some of the references listed below or contact me to set up a time to chat! Visit Monterey Bay Aquarium's Recommendations page for more information on overfished seafood species.

View Dining Services' Sustainability page to learn more about what they are doing to promote sustainability at WVU.

Until next time, Mountaineers! Good luck on the end of the semester craziness, and don’t forget to enjoy the sunshine!

References:

  1. Béné, C., Oosterveer, P., Lamotte, L., Brouwer, I.D., Haan, S., Prager, S.D., Talsma, E.F., Khoury, C.K. (2019). When food systems meet sustainability – Current narratives and implications for actions. World Development, 113, 116-130.
  2. Eakin, H., Connors, J.P., Wharton, C. et al. (2017). Identifying attributes of food system sustainability: emerging themes and consensus. Agric Hum Values, 34, 757-773.
  3. Strategic Imperatives.(1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, 10.
  4. World Health Organization. (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Health Synthesis: A Report of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Geneva: World Health Organization.
  5. Garnett, T. (2013). Food sustainability: Problems, perspectives and solutions. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 72(1), 29-39.
  6. Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T, Vermeulen S, et al. (2019). Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet. 2019 Jan 16.
  7. EAT. Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission . 2019.
  8. Rockström J, Willett W, Stordalen GA. An American Plate That Is Palatable for Human and Planetary Health. Huffington Post. March 26, 2015.
  9. Harvard (2015). 5 tips for sustainable eating. School of Public Health retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2015/06/17/5-tips-for-sustainable-eating/
  10. Garcia, S.M., Zerbi, A., Aliaume, C., Chi, T.D., Lasserre, G. (2003). The ecosystem approach to fisheries. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ISBN 92-5-104960-2
  11. Shindelar, R. (2015). The Ecological Sustainability of Local Food Systems. RCC Perspectives, (1), 19-24. Retrieved April 5, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26241302