FOOD, MEDICINE & HEALTH
Sustainability, a concept intended to encompass everything from the environment and natural resources to green and healthful living, lacks a formal or statutory definition. British botanist Sir Albert Howard made the critical connection between the health of the soil, vegetation, animals, and humans in his 1943 book An Agricultural Testament (Oxford University Press). Today for 81% of Americans ages 18–65, sustainability is about a responsible lifestyle—“living in a way that ensures future generations will be able to have the conveniences and luxuries we enjoy today” (EcoFocus Worldwide, 2013).
Within the food industry, some suggest the primary attributes of sustainability are energy, renewable resources, water, air quality, and responsible waste management (Morawicki, 2012). This movement toward the three pillars of environmental, economic, and social responsibility has been captured in the four R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle, and repurpose. A fourth pillar of health has emerged among American consumers who see a strong connection between personal health and environmental health. According to EcoFocus Worldwide data, three in four Americans agree that “better personal health is a big benefit of an eco-friendly lifestyle.”
These elements of environmental consciousness have been adopted by many members of the food industry, institutions, and communities. There are consumer-led movements toward sustainable practices that include greater respect for local farmers and replenishing natural resources for the future. At the same time, emerging sustainability guidelines have increased efforts toward improving dietary intake while embracing ecological benefits in the food continuum (Kimmons et al., 2012).
These movements have penetrated and connected local food systems and education programs that affect some sustainable characteristics adopted by the food industry. For example, the dairy industry has improved nutrient management (waste), reduced greenhouse gas emissions, enhanced animal welfare, reduced water usage, changed environmental landscapes, and advanced societal values (von Keyserlingk et al., 2013).
More recently, the Health Council of the Netherlands noted the interconnection of diet with ecological indicators. Its 2011 report emphasized that the movement to plant-based diets is more healthful and eco-friendly and acknowledged the importance of animal foods in the total diet. Other reports continue to emphasize the importance of understanding the dynamics and practices in agriculture, which ultimately impact food security and global food policy (Garnett et al., 2013). The sustainable goals embrace these indicators, animal welfare, and human nutrition, while promoting the development of farming practices that improve crop yield and farmers’ income, particularly among low-production environments. Earlier, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations called for urgent action directed to our understanding that promotion of sustainable diets and biodiversity are critical in achieving global food security (FAO, 2010). Even in the absence of a universal definition of “sustainable diet,” the complexities of current food systems must be redirected to accommodate the rapid degradation of the ecosystem and to re-examine food-agricultural systems and diets.
Several organizations suggest that animal protein diets are not eco-friendly. For example beef production requires corn, which may use synthetic fertilizers and contribute to soil erosion (Peters et al., 2008). Similarly, some argue fish consumption contributes to decreased biodiversity and excessive energy usage in transportation (Peters et al., 2008).
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) noted that while diet is central to health outcomes, health extends to the environment, natural resources, and a healthy planet. Subcommittee 5 experts will explore the current status of food sustainability within the United States; examine the primary challenges related to natural and human resources needed to meet the future demands of food production; scan changing demands of various foods and the influence of sustainability; evaluate the environmental impact of agricultural practices and food processing; identify appropriate outcome markers to measure progress in sustainability; and review global practices and dietary guidance that address sustainability.
The 2015 DGAC will solicit comments and approaches on sustainability in the food system from the public. Using the Federal Register, the Committee will address elements of the whole food system, seek information on specific food groups and commodities, and consider potential metrics to assess sustainability.
Thus it is incumbent upon the public and the food industry to promote their sustainability approaches and achievements if they are to significantly impact the next round of dietary guidelines that reach beyond traditional nutrition issues.
, Dr.P.H., CFS, Contributing Editor
Chief Scientific Officer, Horn Company, La Mirada, Calif.
, Contributing Editor
CEO, EcoFocus Worldwide