Eating for the environment?

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Copyright: Panos/Jeremy Horner

Speed read

  • Global food systems are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions
  • Shift from animal to plant-based foods can greatly reduce impacts
  • Affordability and access are issues when choosing healthier foods

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[BANGKOK] Current food systems in the world can hasten or worsen the effects of climate change, according to a new report presented at a conference on nutrition (28—30 November) co-hosted by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the International Food Policy Research Institute.  
Michael Clark, postdoctoral researcher at the Livestock, Environment, and People Project at Oxford University and one of the authors of the EAT-Lancet Commission Report said that the prevailing global food system is a “major source of greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions” and represents “the largest threat to biodiversity”.

“The food system already surpasses environmental impacts… Food system impacts will increase further by 50—80 per cent by 2050.”

Michael Clark, Oxford University

Clark reported that globally, people are eating over 200 per cent more red meat and starchy vegetables (such as potatoes which have been associated with weight gain) than the recommended dietary intake. In contrast, consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, falls below the recommended intake.
Clark explained that the agriculture industry accounts for 24 per cent of global GhG emissions, second only to energy sector’s 25 per cent.
“The food system already surpasses environmental impacts,” Clark said. “Food system impacts will increase further by 50—80 per cent by 2050.”
According to Clark, while it is not necessary to eliminate animal-source foods from diets, reducing intake will improve health, reduce environmental impact and help achieve the SDGs.
A study released earlier this year in Lancet Planet Health showed that a shift from animal-source food to predominantly plant-based diets could promote better health and reduce certain negative environmental impacts by up to 84 per cent in high-income countries.
However, budgetary restrictions continue to keep many people from having access to healthier food options in the Asia Pacific region. Many poor people still opt for processed food saturated in sugar or salt because of affordability. Furthermore, cultural norms and geographical locations also affect or limit food choices. Unless active steps will be taken to educate the masses and make good, healthy food accessible to them, preaching a change of diet will have little to no effect.
The dietary choices in the region have already raised a red flag among nutrition experts.

Jessica Fanzo, senior nutrition and food systems officer, FAO, said the Asia Pacific region has highest levels of malnutrition because of affordability and access issues. “People are consuming too little of healthy foods,” she said.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.