How can we shift food systems towards consumption patterns that safeguard our food supply, address poor health and promote environmental sustainability?
Some suggestions are made in the article below by Professor Simone Pettigrew, of the Centres of Research Excellence in Healthy Food, Healthy Planet, Healthy People, Professor Amanda Lee from The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, and Associate Professor Gary Sacks, from Food Retail Environments for Health (RE-FRESH) collaboration.
Simone Pettigrew, Amanda Lee and Gary Sacks write:
The empty shelves in the supermarkets are a stark reminder of the potential of climate change to impact our food supply.
In addition to the impacts of soaring fuel prices and the COVID-19 pandemic on supply chains, fruit and vegetable prices have skyrocketed in Australia due to this year’s floods and recent bushfires. Farmers are warning that a warmer world will cause more extreme weather events that put global food supply chains at risk.
Eighty percent of Australians acknowledge that the effects of climate change are already being felt and 75 percent are particularly concerned about the consequences for food production.
But the way we eat is contributing to the problem. Heavily processed foods, more kilojoules and red meat than we need, and our love of junk food are bad for the planet as well as our waistlines.
Not only is the food system one of the sectors hardest hit by climate change, it’s also one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation through greenhouse gas emissions, high water use, deforestation and loss of biodiversity.
At the same time, a tsunami of diet-related diseases is looming. Around two-thirds of the Australian adult population is overweight or obese – projected to increase to around three-quarters by 2025 – and diet-related diseases are now the largest contributor to the burden of disease.
Part of the answer is to eat more plant-based foods and try to cut down on food packaging and waste. But while people might agree with these principles, there’s very little detailed information out there on how to make food choices that will really make a difference to both the environment and our health.
Just because foods are plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean they are healthy. Highly processed plant-based foods can still be heavy on salt, sugar and kilojoules, and their production and packaging can still be harmful to the environment.
What we need is a coordinated effort by government and the food industry, as well as consumers, to shift food systems towards consumption patterns that safeguard our food supply, address poor health and promote environmental sustainability.
Our research, which spans National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)-funded Centres of Research Excellence (CRE) across Australia, suggests a way forward.
First, we would like to see more guidance on sustainable, healthy diets included in the new Australian Dietary Guidelines, due for release in 2025.
Second, we need to provide people with better information to help them make informed when they buy food. The new Centres of Research Excellence in Healthy Food, Healthy Planet, Healthy People, based at The George Institute for Global Health, is developing tools to develop ratings for planetary health and packaging that can be used alongside existing Health Star Ratings.
Healthy people, healthy planet
Fortunately, many of the foods that are healthiest for our bodies also tend to be those that are healthiest for the planet.
While there will be trade-offs in people’s buying habits based on individual considerations such as taste, price, nutritional quality and convenience, we hope that our work will prompt people to consider the wider environmental consequences of the foods they put in their trolleys.
Thirdly, there is strong evidence that the way supermarkets are designed has a major influence on what people choose to buy. For example, we are heavily influenced by price promotions and two-for-one-deals on chips and biscuits, and many of us succumb to ‘impulse buys’ of the chocolates and sugary drinks carefully positioned at the checkout.
If in-store marketing techniques were instead directed towards products that are both healthy and environmentally sustainable, supermarkets could contribute to substantial health and environmental benefits.
Large food retailers are expressing a commitment to environmental sustainability and reducing food waste and plastic. But their current focus on use of plastic bags and renewable energy could have substantially more impact if they were also to consider the environmental impact of the foods they stock on their shelves.
Our work has shown there is a high level of public support for action to protect our health as well as the environment. There are also clear and compelling economic benefits for government in investing in regulatory action and other strategies that encourage us to live healthier lives.
The co-benefits are potentially immense, with longer lives lived with less diet-related chronic disease (such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer), improved mental health, a more reliable and equitable food supply, more stable societies and, ultimately, better planetary health – which, at the end of the day, has to be the most important thing for us all.
Professor Simone Pettigrew, Centres of Research Excellence in Healthy Food, Healthy Planet, Healthy People
Professor Amanda Lee, The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre
Associate Professor Gary Sacks, Food Retail Environments for Health (RE-FRESH) collaboration
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