What’s on the menu for a sustainable future?

Sensemaking / What’s on the menu for a sustainable future?

With current food production and consumption unsustainable, Katherine Rowland seeks out the diet that’s best for our health and for the planet.

21 Dec 2012

No human activity has a greater impact on the planet than food production and consumption. The expansion of industrial agriculture around the globe means the world is now producing more food than ever, dazzling consumers with unprecedented choice. Some consumers, that is. One billion people live in chronic hunger today, and the supply challenge will only get more difficult with population growth, water stress, biodiversity loss and climate change.

Efficiencies in production and distribution will play their part in cutting waste, but what can be done at the consumer end of the chain? What we choose to eat is not simply a matter of personal taste: our diets have vast implications for the health of the planet. Can we re-imagine our diets so that they entertain our taste buds, satisfy our stomachs and keep us in good health – while also helping to enrich biodiversity, maintain water supplies and decrease greenhouse gas emissions?

It may sound a reasonable political goal, but make it personal and it soon becomes a hot potato. Of course, no one wants their favourite dish struck off the menu. But is it our attitude towards food that needs to change, above all?

"We almost feel we have a right to eat what we like", says Ann-Marie Brouder, who works with organisations across the food system at Forum for the Future. But, Brouder warns, if we don't consider the impacts of our choices now, and adjust them accordingly, it's unlikely we'll enjoy the same plentiful supply and affordable prices in years to come. She believes change is possible: after all, we get used to setting our own dietary limits – "maybe once we're over eight years old!"

David Russell, Founder of the strategic food consultancy The Russell Partnership, would like to see a new culture emerge, in which we think of food as something to share – beyond our own household. "We're very focused on looking after our own needs", he says, "but where is the thought of how the whole world feeds itself?"

Feeding the world on a sustainable diet is the focus of a joint report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] and Bioversity International, published in 2010. It stressed the need to narrow the 'nutrition gap': the difference between the foods we make readily available, and those we actually need for better nutrition.

So what sort of diet are we talking about? Thankfully, austerity on a plate isn't it. Greater diversity is actually the recommendation of the experts. Currently, the three major staple foods (rice, wheat and maize) supply 60% of the global calorie intake from plants. It's an alarming over-simplification of diet and agriculture, says Emile Frison, Director General of Bioversity International. In Kenya, Bioversity is working to reintroduce leafy greens to the table and markets, and in India it has partnered the Swaminathan Foundation to reintroduce the ancient grain millet in regions where its production had been abandoned in favour of cassava for starch.

Attitudes do change... Not long ago, oysters were dismissed as the 'pigeons of the sea'

But changing habits isn't easy, admits Frison. "In Kenya, the major obstacle in getting those leafy vegetables onto the table was one of image. [There's a] common conception that this is the food of the poor." Cultural attitudes towards food do change though. Not so long ago, oysters were dismissed as the 'pigeons of the sea': now they're a delicacy to grace trendy wine bars…

The promise of a new foodie culture, with diversity at its heart, is significant. If the 3.5 million people who signed the FAO's petition to ask governments to eliminate hunger were to embark on a year of gastronomic experimentation, the lay of the land in years to come may be very different. So where should they begin?

Meat for a treat
Whether they like it medium or rare, meat is the burning question for many. Is vegetarianism the only way to feed the world?

By no means, says Duncan Williamson, Senior Food Policy Advisor at WWF. "You can eat meat and have a sustainable diet", he maintains. "We just can't eat meat the way we currently are."

Worldwide meat consumption is increasing astronomically. The UN predicts that by 2050 meat production will nearly double to 465 million tonnes annually to keep pace with demand. But livestock rearing already takes up to 30% of all ice-free land on the planet, and is responsible for 18-25% of global CO2 emissions, with its dependence on pesticides, fertilisers, fuel, feed and water. What's more, the growing faith in 'a steak for every plate' is doing no good to global health. For the first time in history, chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and certain cancers are appearing in significant numbers in Japan, China and parts of Southeast Asia and Africa.

"Meat has gone from being an occasional treat to something people expect at every meal", Williamson explains. "There's this idea that a 'real' meal consists of a big chunk of meat with a small portion of veg on the side. It should be the reverse."

"By necessity, meat can't continue to be the centre of Western diets", agrees Danielle Nierenberg, Director of the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet programme. "But people can benefit from the added animal protein of using meat in smaller portions, or as flavouring."

While the livestock industry has a bad rap, meat and dairy production can be part of a thriving ecosystem, helping to renew the fertility of the soil, and making organic farming financially viable. Operations that allow livestock to graze rather than rely on feed grains can have a much lower environmental impact, using less water and fossil fuel and producing less waste. Moreover, raising animals in these more humane settings also translates into healthier meat, with lower levels of fat and more omega-3s.

Although smaller animals, like chicken and turkey, are often cited as smarter choices for the heart and the environment, Williamson notes that impact depends on scale. The 4,325 litres of water used to produce a kilogram of chicken may seem modest compared to 15,415 litres spent to produce the same amount of beef. But the picture changes when considering that chicken consumption has increased more than 400% in the EU since the 1960s. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine [PCRM], Americans now consume one million chickens each hour. "The point is not to just switch from red meat to white meat because it's healthier, but to eat less altogether", argues Williamson.

For diversity, try wild species, like boar, deer, and rabbit

As with produce, animal diversity also benefits both producers and planet. Williamson suggests trying wild species, like boar, deer and rabbit. Russell says integrating more non-meat proteins is also essential. "You don't need to replace beef, but to supplement it", he says, whether from beans and legumes, or from more 'radical' options, like algae and insects [see box, 'Finger-licking bug']. "The alternatives are clearly there, and they're not second best but part of the right answer for a sustainable future."

Chasing the rainbow
If meat is to be savoured as an occasional side dish, what should our staples be? Marion Nestle is a nutritional scientist at New York University, and author of Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics. For her, tomorrow's top meal should feature "more vegetables and smaller portions of everything else". Not only does a plant-based diet offer more nutrients, she says, but it has less ecological impact than a carnivorous one. Susan Levin, Director of nutrition education at the PCRM, agrees. A diet composed of fruits, grains and vegetables could satisfy the entirety of human nutritional requirements, she says, including protein.

But the same helping of greens every day won't do the trick. Despite the abundance of the world's edible plants, just 12 species make up 75% of the plant life consumed. Increasingly, fruits and vegetables are cultivated as monocrops. The result is that roughly 70% of agricultural genetic diversity has been lost since 1990. Experts are calling for a shift towards diverse species, prudent irrigation and fewer chemicals. Research from FAO, the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research all indicate that this will bolster food security, improve nutrition and preserve resources.

Fortunately, nutritional research is also calling for more variety on the plate. Rather than focusing on 'superfoods' (like pomegranates, acai or wheatgrass), diets should contain 20–30 biologically distinct foods each week. Nierenberg would also like to see more indigenous and wild plants on the menu, and in particular native species. She notes that native species are nutrient-rich, and tend to be better adapted to local environmental conditions, and as a result require less irrigation, pesticides and fertilisers.

A variety of colours will take care of everything you need

"Go for a rainbow" is Levin's advice. "Eating a variety of colors will take care of everything you need."

Is there no conflict of interest, though, between the need to eat a greater variety of fruit and veg, and the low-carbon benefits of locally harvested, seasonal produce? Not necessarily. In cities and rural areas, apps like Eat Local and Boskoi are pointing consumers towards local suppliers – and even foraging sites.

Urban farming can play its part too. Take Montreal's Lufa Farms: a 31,000 square foot greenhouse on top of an office building, complete with a rainwater harvesting and recycling system. It's supplying fresh, seasonal veg to residents via a box scheme and pick-up points, and offering advice on "what to do with that mysterious spicy leafy green".

More fish in the sea
Not long ago, the ocean's bounty was thought to be limitless. But efficient fishing vessels and our growing taste for seafood have busted that myth. Today, as much as 70% of fish stocks are exploited or facing collapse, presenting an alarming scenario for the world's oceans, and for the one in five people who rely on fish as their primary protein. Not only does eating fish provide protein and omega 3 fatty acids: robust evidence suggests it supports cardiovascular health.

But given the rate of ocean depletion, can fish remain on the menu? Seafood chef and National Geographic Fellow Barton Seaver jokes that "eating broccoli" is the best way to save the seas. However, he says, there are numerous sustainable ways to savour the deep. The author of the cookbook, For Cod and Country, Seaver promotes dining on abundant species that have been sustainably harvested. He also notes that size makes a difference. Smaller species, which tend to reproduce earlier in life, are a good choice.

For James Simpson of the Marine Stewardship Council, how the fish is caught it key: "By buying sustainably sourced fish you can make a difference all the way down the supply chain, and help change the way the oceans are managed."

There are some 'no-no's: Bluefin tuna is among the species hardest hit by industrial fishing. Faced with depleting stocks, catch limits and soaring prices, some chefs have found surprising replacements for their sushi, from smoked venison to raw horsemeat. But Seaver has sourced ample alternatives to tuna without turning his back on the waves: he recommends pole-caught Yellowfin or Albacore, which offer a similar taste without a burdened ecological conscience.

"The fishing industry has been following a race to the bottom", says Andrew Kuyk of the UK's Food and Drink Federation. "With the economy down, fishers try to catch more in the hopes of earning more." While this grim market logic has, alongside consumer demand, been driving the oceans' plunder, Kuyk believes it is "possible to catch less, and sell at a higher price, which would give stocks time to recover".

And that of beans...?
Few foods inspire such lore and craving as chocolate. The recent buzz around its health benefits owes to the flavanol-rich cacao bean, touted to improve circulation and cardiovascular health. Following this year's Nobel Prize ceremony, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, observed a significant correlation between per capita chocolate consumption and the number of awards of each nation...

But can we afford to keep eating it? Today, 4 million tonnes of cacao are produced each year, and production has been increasing at an annual rate of 2.2% to satiate the global appetite. Cacao trees thrive in humid conditions – they only grow within 10 degrees of the equator – and can be cultivated in the shade of the rainforest canopy, where they support biodiversity and soil health. However, in response to rising demand, many farmers have begun growing cacao in full sun, which boosts yields, but also contributes to deforestation and increased dependence on agricultural chemicals.

As with all treats, the trick with chocolate is quality

As with all treats, the trick is quality – not quantity. In 2012, a new organisation was launched to put chocolate makers in touch with cacao growers, supporting them to "strive for the recovery of heritage cacao and to preserve and protect this valuable resource". The founding members gathered on Soldier's Beach, Guanaja, where legend has it that Christopher Colombus made the first European landing in Central America. Here, they planted two 'criollo antiguo' cacao trees, identified as genetically similar to samples found in ancient Mayan pots – in recognition of the heritage of this precious resource.

On the board of Direct Cacao is the UK's award-winning chocolatier Paul Young. His advice to consumers? "Eat less chocolate, but pay more for it. The better it is, the more intoxicating."

Latin lessons

What can we learn from the native foods cultivated by the ancient civilisations of pre-Columbian America – the Incas, the Mayas and the Aztecs? Their diets reflected the biodiversity of the region, and offer important insights into what a sustainable diet may look like today.

We know their diet was well-balanced: rich in the quality and variation of carbohydrates, protein, fibre, fats. The staples were corn, yuca and potatoes, but even these three basic carbohydrates were extremely bio-diverse. There are over 5,000 potato varieties present in the Andes region, with different, sizes, shapes and skin colours. These would be complemented by high protein foods such as beans, seeds, fruits and vegetables.

Now, the FAO is collaborating with governments across the region to maintain crop and plant biodiversity. Through the Latin-Foods Net project, it also analyses food composition data to better measure resources, consumer health and crop biodiversity.Isabel Sloman

Finger-licking bug

Termites and grasshoppers don't typically make your mouth water. However, insects have been a staple in many indigenous African diets for centuries. As food security concerns loom ever larger, should we be eating bugs instead of beef?

There are hundreds of edible insect species, high in protein, minerals, and vitamins. They use fewer resources than livestock, rate more highly in food conversion efficiency (squandering fewer calories) – and can be used as both human food and animal feed. They're also easily preserved for local sale or export all year round. Traditional knowledge is essential to sustainable harvesting, however. If an insect is over-harvested at a particular life-cycle stage, or certain plants destroyed in the process, the species and valuable biodiversity could be lost.

Yet, insects are quick adapters to environmental changes. With warmer temperatures, their populations are expected to increase, making them an accessible and abundant food source.

The edible insect trend is already catching on in Singapore, where some restaurants cater to crowds hungry to dine on larvae and scorpions. – Kyla Mandel

Katherine Rowland is a freelance writer specialising in health and the environment. Additional material by Anna Simpson.

Photos: iStockphoto / thinkstock; iStockphoto / thinkstock; iStockphoto / thinkstock; iStockphoto / thinkstock; Zoonar / thinkstock

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