27 November 2012

Sustainable Diets: What are they? Why should we care?

Yesterday I attended a workshop on Sustainable Diets hosted by the Daniel Carasso Foundation, Bioversity International (a CGIAR centre) and FAO.

What is a sustainable diet? A diet that is healthy, affordable, environmentally sustainable and culturally acceptable. That is a tall order. It is easy to think of diets that are affordable but unhealthy, or diets that are healthy but environmentally unsustainable, or diets that are environmentally sustainable but culturally unacceptable. But all together?  Its important that we try to do this--we have to operate more consciously in a resource constrained world.

The exam topic I was set by the organisers was to say something useful on metrics. My powerpoints are here.

We had an interesting presentation by Jennie Macdiarmid from Rowett Research Institute at Aberdeen University on the Livewell project in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund—on what an affordable Scottish diet looks like--one that meets dietary minimum requirements, is culturally acceptable (i.e. looks like actual Scottish diets) and, crucially, meets greenhouse gas emission targets.
It turns out that what is healthy is not the same as what is environmentally sustainable. In other words it is not all about reducing meat consumption. The results were generated by a relatively straightforward linear programming model. The innovation is incorporating emission data and limits into the model.

My presentation was about how it was essential to get some metrics on sustainable diets. This would force us to be specific, to make choices about what is in and what is out, to identify and assess tradeoffs and importantly, to tell us what difference it would make to policy choices and decisions.

I outlined a few related pieces of work that might be borrowed from: the Multidimensional Poverty Index, the Sarkozy Commission report, the Global Hunger Index, and the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI) that IDS will release in January. Ultimately we want to know if equally healthy and affordable diets have different environmental footprints.

There are a number of technical challenges:

• Getting data on food consumption, on the nutrient composition of local foods, and on the environmental and resource use implications of the use of different foods in the diet. (We need a Global Database on Food Consumption at FAO, similar to the Global Database on Child Growth and Malnutrition at WHO--Graziano da Silva please note!).

• Getting data on government and private sector commitment to sustainable diets (important because this is an inherently “whole of government” affair).

• How to combine the data? Perhaps (1) via a nonlinear programme (or some variant) that generates diets that can serve as a starting point for discussions in the kitchen and in government meeting rooms, (2) in an index or (3) in terms of “agricultural growth that reduces hunger by x for z levels of input use”?

The technical tradeoffs are important but the preference or social welfare tradeoffs that consumers and policymakers are prepared to make are equally important. They reflect values, tradition, history, politics and culture. To get at these tradeoffs we could use behavioural economics to test preferences through constructed situations, choices, and experiments—with different groups of consumers and different groups of policymakers to get a range of “who’s values count?”

On the policy research side, the options seem to be:

• Find positive examples of sustainable diets and try to work out whether they have anything in common and whether policy played any role—deliberately or inadvertently

• Identify relationships that may serve as entry points for policy: e.g. prices, information, social norms, women’s power in decision making

• Evaluate existing interventions that aim to promote sustainable diets (there aren’t many to evaluate)

• Evaluate existing interventions that inadvertently have a positive or negative impacts on sustainable diets (e.g. the US farm subsidies to corn syrup production, the Common Agricultural Policy)

I found the workshop interesting—I learned a lot and met people outside of my usual circles.

I also got to see the first Daniel Carraso Foundation Award get presented to Jessica Fanzo, a worthy recipient. She has managed to combine bench work in molecular nutrition with community nutrition and policy research. She has worked with environmentalists, engineers, economists, agriculturalists, and even political scientists (e.g. Andres Mejia Acosta at IDS). Well done Jess.


Jenna Jenkins said...

It’s good to know that being an “environmentally friendly” does not only stop in the streets. Engaging into sustainable diet could help our Mother Earth in preserve its natural beauty.

Geoff Granfeld Jr said...

Sustainable diet is hard to achieve, one must have proper knowledge and discipline. Is balanced diet not enough? I'm a fat guy and I did follow the concept of sustainable diet but I took pgx so the amount of my food intake would lessen.

Caitlyn Georgina said...

In my opinion, sustainable diet isn't that hard to achieve if you would look at this logic:
1) "Environmentally sustainable" somehow means that food resources are sustained and not scarce. In market terms, our supply is always available and it remains that way.
2) With no shortage in supply, prices lower and therefore, become more affordable to everyone.
3) Of course, majority would prefer anything in low cost.
To make it short and simple, Environmentally Sustainable food is low cost; everyone wants low-cost food. Now all we have to take into consideration is the "culturally acceptable."

About the technical challenges:
Online surveying is one way to make data-gathering easier and less time-consuming. It may easily lead to research and evaluation. Hopefully after coming up with unresolved problems, the government would make a move to address them.

Michael Lawson said...

It can be said that the concept of sustainable diet is idealistic. But I believe that it can be achieved. If only the food manufacturers would cooperate to make low costing healthy foods that can be bought daily by an average man. Honestly speaking, most manufacturers are always after the profit and no one can blame them for that. But they should focus more on the health benefits of their products. Their foil packed foods that mostly contains sodium and saturated fat is not a solution to hunger.

Abbey Crowley said...

This is quite a novel idea. People in third world countries (specially the poor) just consider the price of the food that they could obtain. Maybe presenting this to a government agency for funding is workable.

Myra Geary said...

The diet is important because, the public's overall wellness will surely reflect on the way they condition their body. Also it'll affect the span of the recovery period they have to cope with.

Archie Lemberg said...

I agree with Jenna and Caitlyn. If I were to start a business, I want to be sure I'm investing on what would benefit the people, and at the same time, the environment. It would be successful because it will promote wellness of people and development of nature. Plus, it's less the stress in supplying for the market. I can see it as more on nutrition and wellness instead of pure business.