Sustainable food

Supplementary written evidence submitted by the Public Health Nutrition Group, Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen

At the committee meeting on the 7th December 2011, the chair asked if examples could be provided of the ‘win-win’ situation for the environmental and health in terms of food choices. The following provides a few examples of some of the synergies and possible conflicts for sustainable foods and diets between health and the environment that could arise. A key issue for sustainable food is to consider it beyond the production stage to ensure that food produced for consumption in the UK will create a balanced sustainable diet for the health of the population. The issue of sustainable food needs to be taken through to the end point of the consumer and the types of diets they may consume rather than just considering individual food products. Singling out individual foods could lead to unintended consequences for health.

A ‘win-win’ situation for health and the environment would be to diversify the diet by reducing meat consumption. This would reduce greenhouse gas emission (GHGE) and could also benefit health as meat and meat products are one of the greatest sources of saturated fatty acids in the diet. Ideally the meat would be replaced by plant based foods, such as vegetables, pulses and starchy foods (e.g. pasta, potatoes). An increase in plant based foods would be beneficial to health. However, it can’t be assumed that this is the type of substitution that would be made as equally it could be replaced by high fat alternative, and hence it is important to understand how the population and the food industry would adapt to reducing the amount of meat in the diet.

A recognised conflict is between the current recommended intake of fish (i.e. 2 portions/week) and the environmental sustainability of fish stock. Here it is important for the environmental and health sectors to come together to decide on a single consistent message to avoid confusion among consumers.

A possible conflict also exists within the dairy industry. While dairy products are recognised as a source of high GHGE they constitute an important source of many nutrients e.g. calcium in the diet of the UK population. In terms of health, however, they also contribute a high proportion of saturated fatty acids and therefore recommendations would be to choose reduced fat dairy products, but this creates an issue in terms of the by-product cream. For health it would not be desirable for this to simply re-enter the food chain in the form of other foods, especially as low cost high fat foods, but this has implication for waste.

In the work that we completed for the WWF-UK to explore the possibility of creating healthy, sustainable diet, it was found that it was possible to create a list of foods that achieved a significant reduction in GHGE (Livewell: A diet based simply on the greatest reduction in GHGE would consist of unpalatable quantities and combinations of food. This may not be obvious if the focus was only on food production and the implications for the whole diet, especially of those on low incomes, is not considered. Furthermore, if the focus is only on environmental sustainability, we will fail to address the issue of the excessive intakes of high fat and/or sugar foods, which tend to have lower environmental impacts than animal products, but have a significant impact on obesity and health.

The strategy document Food2030 highlighted climate change and obesity two of the biggest issues facing the population. Since food links these two issues they must be considered together for coherent policy and messages to the consumer.

12 December 2011

Prepared 18th January 2012