Nordic countries do not meet World Health Organization recommendations on healthy eating, nor are they on track to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 on consumption and production. So, for the first time, the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations (NNR) for 2022 will fully integrate sustainability criteria into guidelines for dietary composition and recommended intake of nutrients. This reflects an overall trend in the Nordic region and elsewhere, where sustainable nutrition is part of a substantial shift as governments tackle the environmental impacts of current policies.
Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden are not alone. Sustainable nutrition is an issue with many dimensions, and the way the food industry produces and markets our food affects our nutritional health. Unhealthy dietary patterns, increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods, rising malnutrition, and compounding food insecurity are also visible worldwide.
Achieving a food future that has low environmental impacts, contributes to food and nutrition stability, and offers a healthy life for present and future generations is an urgent matter that depends on global collaborative efforts.
The Problems within Industrialized Food Systems
The Food Tank outlines the “triple planetary crisis” we face — climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and a human health crisis. What’s the connecting thread that links these concurrent crises? It’s dysfunctional food systems which are making us ill and driving the climate crisis.
What unsustainable practices underpin today’s industrialized food systems?
- intensive livestock and commodity crop production
- chemical fertilizers and pesticides
- antibiotic overuse
- long and deregulated commodity supply chains
All of these negatively impact human, animal, and ecological health. Food systems cause or are intrinsically connected to:
- significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
- increases in zoonotic diseases like COVID-19
- antimicrobial resistance
- environmental contamination
- deforestation and land degradation
“We’re not turning them into vegans,” Marty Heller, senior research specialist at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, told ABC News. “We’re just saying, hey, eat something that is an average [carbon] footprint.”
The UK is Eating Less Meat, but Sustainable Nutrition Goals are Still Needed
Daily meat consumption in the UK has fallen by 17% in the last decade, an October, 2021 study has shown. That reduction is not happening quickly enough to meet a key national target, though, so goals set by the National Food Strategy aim to reduce the environmental impact of UK diets.
Nutrition recommendations say meat consumption in the UK must fall by 30% over the next 10 years. The assessment is based on a review of the whole UK food system, from farming and production to hunger and sustainability.
High meat consumption, particularly red meat and processed meat, negatively affects our health, while meat production is one of the largest contributors to global warming and environmental degradation. The livestock sector is responsible for about 15% of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGE), while also driving deforestation, land degradation, and biodiversity loss.
The UK study indicates that overall changes in meat intake were estimated to be associated with a significant reduction in all 6 environmental indicators associated with meat production, including land use (–35%), GHGE (–28%), acidifying emissions (–21%;), eutrophying emissions (–25%), freshwater withdrawals (–23%), and stress-weighted water use (–33%).
Beyond the UK: Global Effects of Industrial Meat
High consumption of animal products, particularly red meat and processed meat, also negatively affects human health. Avoiding ingesting fats from red meats and meat products would help in the prevention, says the US National Institutes of Health, not only of the well-known cardiovascular diseases derived of fats consumption, but also of certain kinds of cancers, mainly colorectal cancer.
The EAT–Lancet Commission’s nutrition recommendations say that global red meat consumption needs to decrease by more than 50% to achieve a healthy sustainable diet, or by 89% to stay within planetary boundaries. The EAT-Lancet Commission report, co-authored by Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, calls for:
- global cooperation and commitment to shift diets toward healthy, largely plant-based patterns
- making large reductions in food loss and waste
- implementing significant sustainability improvements in food production practices
“We are presently on a path leading to a seriously degraded planet,” Willett states. “If we care about the world our children and grandchildren will live in, we need to transform our diets and the way we produce our food. An immediate benefit will be improvements in our health and wellbeing.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines sustainable diets as those that are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems; culturally acceptable; accessible; economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe, and healthy; and optimizing natural and human resources.
The Union of Concerned Scientists argues that federal funding for “sustainable nutrition science”—a field of research and education at the intersection of food production, climate and environment, and nutrition—is abysmally low, amounting to less than 25 cents out of every thousand dollars in federal research funding. They say that the federal government is falling far short of the investments it needs to make in systems-oriented sustainable nutrition science.
What Can You Do to Be Part of a Sustainable Nutrition Lifestyle?
We are living in a time in which humanity is the dominating driver of change in atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth systems. Our influence has never been greater. In terms of anthropogenic activities, agriculture is the largest cause of global environmental change, and examples of global environmental change include climate change, deforestation, desertification, and damage to coastal reefs and marine ecosystems.
The largest impacts lie in voting and purchasing power as governments and industry make significant changes for countries to meet long and short-term emissions goals. But the easiest thing individuals can do in their daily lives to foster positive effects in the climate fight is to make sustainable nutrition changes.
Although good nutrition is essential for human life, the way we produce foods has changed incredibly since our ancestors tilled their own soil, foraged for native foods, and moved with seasonal food opportunities. We can, however, take a more sustainable approach to healthy eating today that will help protect the Earth and its climate.
- Grow or buy local fruits and vegetables.
- Reduce your food waste and compost.
- Choose items with less processing and packaging.
- Know the carbon footprint of the foods you buy.