Archive for the ‘UK’ Category

Good for you; good for the environment

December 28, 2010

(Image (c) Barilla; Source: http://www.barillacfn.com/en/pyramid)

As we approach the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, typically many of us are making their New Year’s resolutions.  A common resolution is to improve our diet – “I must cut down on those high-fat, high-salt packet snacks”. “I should really ban fizzy sugary drinks from our dinner table.” “I need to drink more water.” The goal is often to manage our weight and to safeguard against illness and health problems. Good for us!

But have you ever stopped to think that choosing to improve our diet as a New Year’s resolution might have additional value…beyond personal gain?  Well it does! It can also help to safeguard the natural environment.

You have probably often heard the food-related slogan “Good for you, good for the environment.” Some of you may already use it in your educational settings. It seems, however, that this food choice principle is now being given much more importance both by governments and by industry.

In 2009, the government of Sweden proposed a new set of dietary guidelines combining health and environmental impact. (http://www.slv.se/upload/dokument/miljo/environmentally_effective_food_choices_proposal_eu_2009.pdf) Recommendations in the Environmentally Effective Food Choices proposal included: eating locally produced meat, chicken, fruits, vegetables and berries, eating sustainable fish, avoiding bottled water and palm oil, and limiting rice consumption (as its production results in large amounts of methane). Unfortunately, these guidelines were not approved by the EU Commission who said that they would encourage Swedish consumers to choose locally produced products at the expense of products from other countries, which contravenes the principles of free movement of goods in the EU internal market. Although the original proposers (the National Food Administration) made revisions to the guidelines to address this criticism, the Swedish government eventually decided to withdraw the proposed guidelines.

Nonetheless, this interest in guiding consumers on the food and sustainability link is gaining momentum in Europe.

This past September the German Council for Sustainable Development published their updated Sustainable Shopping Basket guide. (http://www.nachhaltigkeitsrat.de/fileadmin/user_upload/English/pdf/publications/brochures/Brochure_Sustainable_Shopping_Basket_September_2010.pdf) With respect to food they recommend that the consumer’s shopping basket “should contain above all  healthy food products, organic products,  seasonal fruit and vegetables grown locally,  less meat and fish, fair-trade products and beverages in recyclable packaging units.” The guide also explains sustainability-related labels to look for when making food choices.

The above Swedish and German recommendations are in tune with a December 2009 report by the UK’s Sustainable Consumption Commission which mapped out synergies and tensions between public health, the environment, economic stability and social inequalities. ( http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications/downloads/Setting_the_Table.pdf) The Setting the Table’s priority recommendation for changes likely to have the most significant and immediate impact on making our diets more sustainable was: Reduce consumption of meat, dairy products, and fatty and sugary (low nutritional value) foods, and waste less food.

The food industry is also pitching in with their research and guidance. Just recently, in December 2010, the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) published what they called a Double Pyramid to graphically represent the link between the well-known food pyramid and the generation of greenhouse gases, water use and the ecological footprint. (http://www.barillacfn.com/en/pyramid) Although the food pyramid depicted is not the same as that of the WHO Europe CINDI Healthy Eating Guide, its concept is the same and food group placements are similar. Eat-often foods found at the base of the food pyramid, such as bread, pasta and wholegrains are shown to have a lower impact on the environment than meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs and fats, oils and sweets found higher up in the pyramid. In other words, recommended foods for health are more environment-friendly and vice-versa.

The Double Pyramid and the rationale behind it was presented at an open debate at the European Parliament and discussed by a panel of MEPs and food policy experts. MEP Paolo de Castro warned: “The issue of food supply, fuelled in recent years by the exponential growth in demand, particularly in some areas of the world, is leading us onto dangerous ground. Food is destined to become an insufficient and costly resource. Today’s challenge is to increase productivity, with fewer resources and less pollution.”

These words echo those of Professor Joan Gussow, noted American nutritionist and environmental scientist, who nearly a quarter of a century ago, wrote ”Learning to view foods as more than just sources of nutrients may guide consumers toward sustainable food choices. A shift to sustainable diets would be an important first step in widespread adoption of a sustainable agriculture policy that promotes the conservation of natural resources and regional self-reliance in food production and consumption.”

So if you are teaching or writing about the food pyramid, food groups and healthy eating, there is very good reason to also emphasise the sustainability link. (For more on this you might also want to check out the Dolceta website on Sustainable consumption [http://www.dolceta.eu/malta/Mod5/spip.php?rubrique1], as well as Seasonal and Sustainable an interesting recipe book recently published by my Home Economist colleague Karen Mugliett [http://www.timesofmalta.com/life/view/20101211/news/healthy-cuisine-for-every-season].)

And finally, as you make your New Year’s resolutions, choose one or two related to sustainable food consumption. Remember that from the health perspective: What’s good for you is very probably good for the environment.