Want to eat more sustainably? Eat more fish and veg
With starvation and obesity posing two of global society’s most pressing issues, and with a world population that’s forecast to soar to more than 9 billion people by 2050, further intensifying the pressure on precious resources, the current human diet is not sustainable, agreed a panel of experts at the recent edition of the annual Food Matters conference in London.
Leaders from science, health, food manufacturing and the restaurant trade took part in a special seminar titled “Putting sustainable diets at the top of the menu,” and quickly acknowledged that delivering food security in a sustainable way undoubtedly presented one of the herculean tasks of the modern age.
“The reason we are talking about a ‘sustainable diet’ is because our diet is not sustainable. We are now 7.5 billion people, and more than 800 million are malnourished, while the overweight and obese account for 2 billion. A sustainable food system is one that provides food security without compromising the environment. What we have today doesn’t work,” said Alexandre Meybeck, senior policy on agriculture, environment and climate change at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
A sustainable diet enables people to be healthy while also contributing economically, he said and highlighted that many of the the world’s hungry people work in agriculture sectors.
Meybeck said he believed the fundamental problem was that people had forgotten that “food matters,” particularly the ways in which much of it is produced.
“Food matters a lot for people, for planet and for environment,” he said. “Unfortunately, change takes time.”
Ramond Blanc, chef, restaurateur and president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), agreed that at present, consumers have a major disconnect with food, particularly where it comes from and how it is produced, which has largely come as a result of the dominance of processed products in the at-home consumption channel in recent decades.
This “heavy processing” movement has in turn led to the intensification of farming and food production and effectively turned the things we eat into cheap commodities, whereby consumers predominantly think only about how much a product costs in monetary terms, while ignoring the larger potential consequences of such production systems, he said.
“We are fluent in talking about food but our deeper-down understanding is very much lacking,” Blanc said. “We need to reconnect with food and strike a balance.”
While food sutainability is a very complex challenge, it’s not an impossible one, said Lord Robert Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College and chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology.
Winston told delegates that public engagement and progressing the knowledge of food among consumers ranked among the most essential tools for driving the food sustainability agenda forward and added that schoolchildren were by far the most receptive demographics to change.
Restaurants and chefs should also assume a much bigger role in educating people on what is good food and raising public awareness of sustainable food issues, said Blanc.
“Knowledge brings greater responsibility,” he said. “Fortunately, in the U.K., there is a growing awareness among consumers of where their food comes from. I wouldn’t call it a revolution, but there is an opportunity today to reconnect people with farmers and local fishermen.”
Beyond education, Blanc said that many consumers eat too much meat-based protein, particulary beef, and that they need to introduce much greater protein diversity as a matter of urgency.
“A balanced diet requires far more fish and far more vegetables. Good food sustainability is also about working with the land and the sea – with farmers and fishermen – to create better food systems than we have now.”
Society also needs to rediscover some basic cooking techniques, which will enable them “to cook thousands of dishes,” he said.
From a commercial perspective, changing the way people eat is about “evolution not revolution” and making small progressive steps, said Sue Garfitt, U.K. and Ireland director of Alpro, a plant-based food and beverage manufacturer.
Garfitt said it’s vital the food industry and retailers incorporate the world’s population growth over the next 34 years into their business models and play their parts accordingly.
“They must create more responsible and inspiring products that taste good and which are given better prominence with consumers by being made more widely available,” she said.