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Eating habits must change: new report from Food Climate Research Network calls for action on sustainable healthy diets

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Leadership and substantial investment in research are needed to shift global consumption habits towards diets that are both healthy and sustainable, say academics, business leaders and food campaigners in a new report.

Experts say current eating habits – including increased meat consumption - are detrimental to both climate and to human health, and that the need for a significant change in behaviour is well recognised. While meat has a positive nutritional role to play, its production generates huge environmental costs, accounting for 15 per cent of total global GHG emissions and taking up 70 per cent of agricultural land. At the same time, the consumption of animal products, alongside other foods and lifestyle factors, is contributing to growing rates of obesity and chronic diseases.

The report, Changing What We Eat, published by the Food Climate Research Network, part of the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, outlines the work needed to attain consumption patterns that can meet both public health and environmental goals.

Lead author, Dr Tara Garnett, says a focus on what we eat is needed as much as on food production, where there have been significant moves towards more sustainable practice in recent years. “What we eat, and how much we eat, is directly related to production,” she said.  “To make our diets more sustainable we need to adopt eating patterns that have lower environmental impacts, deliver broader societal benefits, and support good health.”

The report follows a workshop organised by the Food Climate Research Network, and funded and hosted by the Wellcome Trust with additional support from the UK’s multi-agency Global Food Security Programme. 

Research is now needed in three key areas, say those involved in the report:

  1. What are healthy sustainable eating patterns?
  2. How do we eat now, why, and what are the health and sustainability implications?
  3. How do we achieve change?

Dr Garnett continued: “We know enough to get started but we need to talk about consumption and we need leadership. Action will be a shared responsibility across government, industry, academia, civil society and consumers, but there is an urgent need for policy direction to provide a strategic route towards sustainable eating.

“We also need substantial government-backed investment in research to improve our understanding of how we’re going to be able to change these patterns of consumption.”

Key facts:

  • The food system today is undermining the environment upon which future food security depends. It contributes to some 20-30 per cent of man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is the leading cause of deforestation, land and soil degradation and biodiversity loss, accounts for 70 per cent of all human water use and is a major source of water pollution.
  • Studies have found generally find that low environmental impact eating patterns (measured by GHG emissions and land use) are centred on a diverse range of minimally processed tubers, whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, with animal products eaten sparingly.
  • Considerable energy is used in the manufacture, transport, retailing, cooking and refrigeration of foods. In high income countries these activities contribute to approximately 50 per cent of the food system’s total GHG emissions.