How Food Impacts Global Health and Environment
What is your expertise within the topic of food and its impact on the environment and global health?
My name is Hedda Ottesen and I am a medical doctor and the initiator of EAT Student Initiative. Since high school I have been engaged in organizations focusing on the environmental issue in different ways. When I realized how environmental issues such as climate change and reduced biodiversity is closely linked to the public health diseases through what we eat, I decided to study medicine. I wanted to learn how the body functions and how food and lifestyle affect its health and well being. But most of all I wanted to find the key to behavioral changes. I wanted to learn whether and how it would be possible to change our behaviors and habits so that we, the people on this earth, could live in a win-win relation with the planet.
During my years as a medical student at Uppsala University I have been engaged in politics, in NGO’s, in student movements for the climate such as the Climate Students, and I have been on the board of the student union to help the University decrease its negative environmental impact. In 2015 i learned about the EAT Foundation. EAT Foundation works with informing about food and its connection to health and planet on all levels in society. They also work with research projects and build national and international collaborations to improve health for planet and people through sustainable food production and consumption. EAT puts food on the political agenda. The EAT agenda was exactly what I was passionate about, so I founded the EAT Student Initiative in Uppsala, Sweden, in collaboration with EAT Foundation. With EAT Student Initiative we worked on a local level in Uppsala with engaging people to talk about food. Together with other students from different fields of studies I ran the organization and arranged lectures, seminars, and workshops where we learned from experts as well as from each other. Step by step, by learning about different pieces of the whole puzzle, we learned to see the whole complexity of the food system as well as what parts that need to be changed to make the food sustainable. To change the negative impact of the food system and turn it into something that is good for planet and health, an interdisciplinary approach is needed. All pieces of the puzzle need improvements to change the whole image, to change the outcome.
What are the current issues in the food industry?
In the EAT Lancet Report from 2019 it was investigated whether it will be possible to produce food to each and everyone in the expected population of nearly 10 billion people by year 2050. In the report it was also explored what changes in production and consumption that would be needed to ensure that we can live healthy lives on a planet that is healthy. To quote Prof. Walter Willett MD, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: ”Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts. Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.”  I call this diet a win-win diet, a diet that is good for the planet as well as for the people and other organisms living on it.
The main issues on the food industry are that too much energy, clean water and land is spent on food that is bad for our health and that destroy ecosystems. As an example, the production of red meat produces 28 kilo CO2 equivalents per kilo meat, rainforests are being cut down to create new pastures for the animals, which also result in destroyed ecosystems, and it also is carcinogenic, which means it increases the risks for cancer such as colorectal cancer. On the other hand we have another source of protein, legumes. To create 1 kilogram of legumes only 0,5 kg CO2 equivalents are emitted and, if grown without pesticides and if avoiding monocultures, it is good for the ecosystem as it attracts bees that pollinate and make greens grow. It is also a healthy food with good fibers which prevents from cancer such as colorectal cancer.
How could the food industry improve to have a positive impact on the environment and global health?
The food industry should produce what is needed for a healthy diet. It should produce enough food for every living creature on earth, and the production should be good for environment and climate. In short, food production should be part of a sustainable win-win model to maintain healthy lives on a healthy planet. To achieve this there is need for a combination of a major shift toward mostly plant-based dietary habits, profound improvements in the practices of food production, and drastic reductions of food losses and food waste. Every person involved in the food system may play a role in ensuring a sustainable food system; growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, and waste managers.
So let’s start with what food we eat when sticking to a win-win diet! A healthy diet for planet and people has a reasonable caloric intake and consists of different plant-based foods. It also contains unsaturated rather than saturated fats, low intake of animal source foods as well as a limited amount of refined grains, processed foods and added sugars. In comparison to how most of us eat today, we should more than double our intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. We should reduce our consumption of red meet and foods with added sugars more than by half.
With that said, what does the food industry need to do? A substantial part of the food industry has to shift from animal farming to production of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains. Within the production it improved production practices (PROD) should be implemented; the yield gap should be closed to about 90%, the nitrogen use efficiency should be increased by 30%, phosphorus should be recycled to 50% and first-generation biofuels should be completely phased out. All available bottom-up options for reducing food-related greenhouse gases emissions should be implemented. The management of water use must also be improved as lot of fresh water is being wasted today. As for the biodiversity, land must be optimized across regions to minimize impact on biodiversity.
When it comes to the other end of food production, when it’s out on the market, it is important that the healthy, sustainably produced food is competitive. To make that possible both soft and strict interventions are needed; information to the public about what food to eat, as well as regulations making it more financially possible for all to be on a win-win diet. Companies wanting to become big in the sustainable food system should speak up against policy makers, demanding a system beneficial for them. That system may include many changes, one of them being maybe economical tools directing the production as well as consumption towards sustainable and healthy habits.
Apart from that the food producing and selling companies health care companies should include more sustainability aspects in the dietary advise provided, to make it regard not only health but also environment, in the dietary advise provided. On a political level investments in public health information and education on sustainability should be prioritized.
Are there companies you know of that are leading with an example?
There are many companies showing amazing examples! They show us super shrewd solutions to issues connected to different parts of the food puzzle, and they show us that improving can be fun and profitable. To mention a few companies providing good examples there are Winnow Solutions, I-Grow and Wakati. Winnow Solutions is a British start-up that has developed a smart solution to track what kind of food we throw away and how much, with the aim to reduce food waste globally. I-Grow is a fun and creative company connecting growers, landowners and backers and they raise capital for seeds from urban people to help struggling farmers. The fun part here is that they also provide you as an investor an interactive experience. Through the mobile app you can see results of your investments; growing, beautiful food! Wakati is a company that developed a super cool technology for preservation of fruits and vegetables for small scale farmers. The solution is powered by a small solar panel, doesn’t include cooling, and it only requires one liter of water per week. It is a very resource efficient way of preservation and it helps eliminate post-harvest food losses.
 EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems, 2019