Sustainable food systems and health: The convenient truth of addressing climate change while promoting health

Cristina Tirado-von der Pahlen, UCLA, International Union of Nutritional Sciences - Climate and Nutrition

Feeding the world sustainably and promoting good nutrition and health under a changing climate is one of the main challenges of our time. Climate change has a negative impact on food security, nutrition and the health of millions of vulnerable people, particularly poor women and children. According to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), if current trends continue, it is estimated that an additional 1-3 billion people will be affected by water scarcity and 200-600 million will suffer from hunger by 2080 particularly in sub-Saharan Africa countries.

The global food system will be further challenged over the coming decades with increases in the human population, environmental degradation, changes in diet, urbanisation and greater demands on energy and water resources. Projections show that feeding a world population of 9 billion people in 2050 would require raising overall food production by some 60 per cent. High food output achieved in the past has placed great stress on natural resources and the agriculture sector specifically is a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The expansion of livestock and biofuel sectors plays a major role in deforestation and land degradation and globally about one third of food produced for human consumption per year is lost or wasted, both contributing further to GHG emissions.

Currently more than half of the world's 7 billion people are affected by a form of malnutrition. While there are still 795 million people that go hungry everyday and the health of 2 billion is compromised by nutrient deficiencies, 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese. Changes in dietary patterns towards greater production and consumption of meat and animal products present a set of complex challenges for climate change mitigation, for agriculture, for health and for achieving food security and nutrition.

The Rome Declaration, adopted at the FAO and WHO Second International Conference on Nutrition in 2014, offers an to address the impacts of climate on undernutrition and at the same time to promote the co-benefits of sustainable and healthy dietary patterns to health and the environment.

A brief on "Sustainable Food Systems and Health: The convenient truth of addressing climate change while promoting health" will be launched at COP21 at an event on December 7th.

Key messages of the brief include:

Sustainable and healthy diets can contribute to both a reduction in GHG emissions and improved public health and nutritional outcomes. The IPCC AR5 report highlighted the opportunities to achieve co-benefits from actions that reduce emissions and at the same time improve health by shifting consumption away from animal products in high-meat consumption societies, toward less emission intensive healthy diets.

Enhance sustainable food systems by developing coherent public policies from production to consumption and across relevant sectors to provide year-round access to food that meets people’s nutrition needs and promote safe and diversified healthy diets. Policy coherence needs to be ensured through institutional and cross-sectoral collaboration.

Promote integrated implementation of sustainable patterns of food production and consumption, respecting the carrying capacities of natural ecosystems. This requires consideration of all the aspects and phases in the life of a food product, from production to consumption, and includes such issues as sustainable lifestyles, sustainable diets, food losses and food waste management and recycling, voluntary sustainability standards, and environmentally-friendly behaviours and methods that minimise adverse impacts on the environment and do not jeopardise the needs of present and future generations.

Nutrition-sensitive climate adaptation and mitigation have many co-benefits for both health and the environment and there is a need to address food and nutrition security in the National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action Plans (NAMAs). A combination of nutrition-sensitive, climate-smart strategies and technological development, nutrition-smart investments in the agriculture and food sectors but also in social protection, education and community-based disaster risk reduction areas can contribute to ensure food and nutrition security in a changing climate.

Adopt a multi-sectoral approach and good governance. Reaching and sustaining food and nutrition security in a changing climate requires a multi-sectoral food system approach involving nutrition, agriculture, health, trade, education, water supply and sanitation and social protection – as well as taking into account cross-cutting issues like gender equality, governance, and state fragility.

Photo: Cristina Tirado-von der Pahlen