'Eating habits must change to protect people and planet', urges new research

16 June 2014

I Stock_Strahil Dimitrov_Seeds_Hands
© StrahilDimitrov

Government leadership and substantial investment in research are needed to shift global consumption habits towards eating patterns that are both healthy and sustainable, say academics, industry and NGOs in a new report.

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

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

  • What are healthy sustainable eating patterns?
  • How do we eat now, why, and what are the health and sustainability implications?
  • How do we achieve positive change?

Experts say global trends in eating habits – including increasing meat consumption in many parts of the world - are detrimental both to the environment and to human health, and that a significant shift in consumption practices among high consuming populations is needed. The food system contributes to some 20-30 per cent of human-generated 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. Livestock rearing, for meat and dairy products, carries a particularly high environmental cost, accounting for some 15 per cent of global GHG emissions. At the same time, current eating patterns, alongside other lifestyle factors, are putting an unsustainable burden on health services around the world. While meat and animal products can be an important source of nutrients for many, high and growing intakes are associated with a range of chronic diseases.

The report’s lead author, Dr Tara Garnett of the FCRN, says a focus on consumption - on eating more sustainably - is urgently needed. “There have been important efforts to improve the sustainability of food production in recent years. But while these production-side measures are necessary, they are not by themselves sufficient. To address the multiple environmental, health and societal challenges we face we also 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 FCRN, and funded and hosted by the Wellcome Trust with additional support from the UK’s multi-agency Global Food Security Programme. The report invites collaboration with the FCRN in driving forward investment and research.

Dr Garnett added: “Action for sustainable eating will always be a shared responsibility across industry, academics, civil society and consumers and there is a growing willingness by many to engage in this challenge. But there is an urgent need for political leadership to set the direction of travel and to provide support.

“We also need substantial government-backed investment in research to improve our understanding of how we can actually change patterns of consumption.”

Key facts

  • Studies generally find that lower 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.
  • In high income countries, agricultural production accounts for about 50 per cent of food-related GHG emissions. The remaining 50 per cent is caused by the manufacture, transport, retailing, cooking and refrigeration of foods.
  • Between 30 and 50 per cent of all food produced globally is wasted. This loss not only undermines food security but represents a waste of land, water and other inputs, as well as causing the generation of unnecessary emissions.
  • In regions such as Europe, Australia and the United States, per capita consumption of animal products, is typically very high but is broadly static. Per capita intakes in the emerging economies of Brazil, India and China, tend to be about 30-50% lower than in high income regions but are rising rapidly. Most of the growth in global demand for animal products will come from these growing populations and economies.