16 September 2013

Sustainable Diets: An Idea in Need of a Movement?

When I first heard about sustainable diets, I was a sceptic.

But I am gradually beginning to think that there is something substantive to the idea and so I was happy to chair a couple of sessions on it, organised by the Daniel Carosso Foundation, at the International Nutrition Congress currently taking place in Granada, Spain. (The speakers were interesting and eloquent--session agenda below.)

Sustainable food and diets: From theory to evidence – Based successful practice
The sustainable food and diets
Barbara Burlingame, Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Roma, Italy
Global state of the art in high income countries
Jennie Macdiarmid, Aberdeen University, Aberdeen, UK
Global state of the art in low and middle income countries

Evidence-based successful practices: Sustainable food and diets in the field
Chair: Lawrence Haddad, Sussex University, Brighton, UK
Perspectives and expectations in food and diets policies
Tim Lang, London University, London, UK
Perspectives and expectations in Africa food and diets policies
Joyce Kinabo, Sokoine University of Agriculture, Morogoro, Tanzania
Case studies from the field: engaging communities
Jessica Fanzo, Columbia University, New York, USA

Roundtable, Research gaps & policy challenges
Chair: Lawrence Haddad, Sussex University, Brighton, UK
Speakers: Thomas Allen, Bioversity International, Roma, Italy
Tim Johns, Mc Gill University, Montreal, Canada
Eileen Kennedy, Tufts University, Boston, USA
Sarah E. Lewis, The Sustainability Consortium, Arkansas, USA
Tony Long, WWF European Policy Office, Brussels, Belgium

So why sceptical?  Sustainable diets are healthy, affordable and have an environmental footprint that does not do harm to future generations. Nothing to be sceptical about there: this economics-environment-health triangle has been around for ever.  The scepticism comes from the interventions advocated to achieve it, simply because there is not much obvious evidence around on how to do this. 

So I would like to see an attempt to collect the non-obvious evidence, things that have worked in other areas to achieve these win-win-win outcomes.  There is a lot of work on health-environment linkages, economic-environment linkages and nutrition-economics linkages.  Someone needs to put them together. This will help us identify the opportunities for reframing or repositioning existing interventions and policies and will help us innovate on new ones.

But this is not enough--in addition we need research that highlights the potential impacts of changing production, distribution and consumption choices on the environment and the tradeoffs of these with health.  For example, bananas have a very low carbon footprint compared to asparagus because the latter are airfreighted and the former are shipped.  But bananas have low beta carotene content.  Many of the tradeoffs will be unanticipated, but many can be predicted. Once we have a topography of "impact points" in different contexts, we can begin thinking about which impact points are potentially amenable to interventions and policy.

But because there are so many players, sectors, and interests in the sustainable diet area, the danger is that non strategic choices are made. 

So I would like to see 5 things happen to take the sustainable diet ideas to the next level:

1. Consciously become a movement.  A movement advocating for the goal, but not yet for a particular solution.  Movements are hard to start but once they do they generate momentum and energy.  Movements also provide a big tent for all players to come together.  The Scaling Up Nutrition movement is a useful example.

2. Organise the evidence.  Do it around a common conceptual framework and a definition that is easy to remember.  Do this in a way that is authoritative and does not look like it is promoting anyone's institutional agenda.  This could be via a series of peer reviewed review articles backed up by an institutional arrangement akin to a more modest version of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

3. Educate policymakers and others.  Propose the metrics.  Tell them about the trends, the causes, and the consequences.  Make it clear which interventions work, which might--and which do not. Finally educate on the different policy approaches and the options within them, and try to get them more comfortable with complexity.

4. Agitate.  Work the system.  Write the op-eds, canvass the parliamentarians, work with the old media and art communities, work with new media to highlight success stories and disastrous excesses, work with universities to valorise innovative courses, convince the donors to fund across sectors, and work with the journals to become more issue oriented.  Don't let the issues die.

5. Be political.  This agenda is inherently about tradeoffs.  That means some people will sometimes win and some people will sometimes lose. Promote transparency in those tradeoffs, hold actors to account, understand the different agendas and motives, don't be ideological about the private or public sectors. 

In this way the sustainable diets idea can be sustained.   

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