Healthy and green diets go hand in hand

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Policy makers, business and industry are starting to wake up to the idea of supporting sustainable diets. Action is already late but we can still act now to show people a way to lead healthier lives in keeping with the planet’s abundance of natural resources, writes Tony Long.

Tony Long is the Director of the WWF’s European Policy Office in Brussels.

Many consumers, businesses and governments have a rather odd relationship with our food system which can be summed up as “out of sight, out of mind”. People, and society as a whole, often prefer to ignore the impact that our consumption is having on the environment and our health.

So why is the way we eat so important? Today the average European consumes almost 3,500 calories a day – 25% more than the daily recommended level – and eats approximately  70% more protein(mostly animal) than recommended.

Obesity in Europe is at an all-time high and rising, causing heart diseases, strokes, diabetes and 10-13% of all deaths, according to the WHO. It has become one of the biggest health challenges of our time, costing our governments billions of euros in health bills.

But the way we eat doesn’t only affect our health; it affects our environment as well. One of the clearest impacts of our food addiction is the destruction of forested areas for agricultural produce bound for European consumers. This puts a heavy toll on our global CO2 output. Between 1990 and 2008 Europe imported and consumed about 9 million hectares of newly deforested land, (roughly three times the size of Belgium); and all this despite the fact that we throw away over one-third of the food we produce.

So what is stopping government and business from promoting healthy diets that are both good for our health and the environment? It seems logical that encouraging such an affordable  diet would be something that should receive support, especially given that the global population will reach 9 billion by 2050, and a diet increasingly based on resource intensive animal protein (like meat, dairy and fish) is soon bringing us up against planetary limits like freshwater supplies and fertile soils.

LiveWell for LIFE , a three-year project closely examining the relationship between food, health and the environment, has released a milestone report: Adopting Healthy, Sustainable Diets: Key opportunities and barriers. This study has identified some of the most important factors that explain why governments are not supporting sustainable diets, why food companies are discouraged from promoting them and why consumers are slow to adopt them.

The good news highlighted by the report is that policy makers are starting to wake up to the idea of supporting sustainable diets.  This is partly because old taboos warning politicians against interfering in what people should eat or drink, – a taboo reinforced by the agri-foods industry, – are breaking down in the face of rapidly mounting health costs.

Our LiveWell report also shows how institutional barriers need to come down. Food policy is a cross cutting issue that touches many different areas managed by different ministries and sections (Directorate Generals) of the European Commission such as: agriculture, trade, health, competition, environment, consumer rights. In practice, not all of these will have the same interest in pursuing the same objectives.

The most concrete example of this new interest in sustainable diets at a European level can be found within the European Commission’s Europe 2020 Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

As part of this strategy a consultation was recently opened, which will provide all stakeholders with the opportunity to make their views known on how we should address the challenges of growing a sustainable food system. This is intended to help frame future policy and needs wide participation from civil society.

The LiveWell study also highlights the need for policy to have some real teeth. The systems of self-regulation that are often favoured by governments and industry simply have not worked. A combination of legislation with appropriate penalties and the application of appropriate taxation policies are needed to give companies the necessary incentives for taking socially and environmentally beneficial decisions.

Business and industry need to accept its role in developing sustainable diets. Not only do they have a duty to offer sustainable products to consumers but they also need to use their marketing might to create a market for such products. We all know how powerful big brands can influence and create market demand. Just look at the likes of Coca Cola or McDonalds who have had such a profound effect on what we eat and drink.

Some companies, like Unilever, through its Sustainable Living Plan 2012, are set to become market leaders.

Ultimately our LiveWell Adopting Healthy, Sustainable Diets: Key opportunities and barriers study sees the citizen as the decisive catalyst for change, but without government applying pressure on business this cannot happen alone.

The commitment set out in the Europe 2020 strategy document by the European  Commission under President Barroso’s second term of office must continue when his successor is chosen next year. Action is already late but we can still act now if we want to reach our climate change commitments, halt biodiversity loss by 2020, and show people a way to lead healthier lives in keeping with the planet’s abundance of natural resources.

Subscribe to our newsletters