October 2019 Reuters; Transforming diets around the world is key to unlocking better human health and limiting the impact of climate change in tandem, but time is running out.
With a rapidly increasing global population, and extreme weather threatening food production around the world, the question is not whether a food revolution needs to happen, but whether it can realistically be brought about soon enough to counter today’s environmental and public health crises.
The answer is – most likely – yes. We have what it takes to change within a generation. After all, diets have been in constant flux across all cultures and countries for all recorded history.
For instance, the national staple of Zambia, maize meal, was a novelty less than 100 years ago. Meanwhile palm oil has, in a few decades, risen from obscurity in Colombia to being the single most important source of fat, accounting for a quarter of consumption.
Diets have become unhealthier in many places, so that food-related ailments are now the leading cause of death worldwide. But some countries have bucked this trend. For example, Japan and South Korea have transitioned to globalised economies in the last 70 years without forsaking traditional healthy patterns of eating.
Vietnam’s average diet has also swiftly become healthier as incomes have risen, with nearly half the population close to the “ideal” balanced diet.
Recent research such as the EAT-Lancet report has demonstrated that, in theory, healthy diets are possible for everyone within the earth’s environmental limits.
So what can we learn from significant dietary changes of the past to help ensure a healthy transition can happen at pace?
Firstly, while critics have contested the idea that governments could – or should – influence what we eat, where interventions have been tried, they are showing signs of success.
Sugar taxes, for example, have achieved reductions in consumption in both Mexico and Chile, including among children and adolescents. In the UK and Philippines, sugar taxes have led to companies changing their recipes for fizzy drinks.
But so-called “sin taxes” are not the only measure available to governments. Dietary change needs long-term sustained and systemic policy intervention – as has been done with tobacco. Health and environment campaigners alike have called for meaningful actions, such as full application of national dietary guidelines in schools and hospitals, rebooting of agricultural subsidies, regulation of food advertising, and support to low-income people to purchase better food.
It is time for governments to move beyond public information campaigns to more systemic and hard-hitting approaches.
Secondly, we are understanding more every day about how consumers can be nudged towards making better choices by changes in food environments – meaning our daily places and contexts for choosing what we eat. Behavioural insights reveal that if sustainable, healthy food options become more appealing, easy and normal, then they will naturally become the default choice.
Affordability will always be most important. But even simple changes to food labelling can influence what we choose to eat. Nutritious food labelled with exotic, decadent language out-sells the same products labelled with healthy phrasing. “Twisted citrus-glazed carrots”, for example, sound far more appealing than “carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing”, even if they are precisely the same thing.
For a food revolution to happen, a domino effect is needed along the whole supply chain. The entire food system needs to change quickly. That includes what we grow, how we process and market it, how children learn to eat and how we share meals together.
Rather than seeking to return to the ways of our grandparents, let us look to the future. With a little imagination, governments, industry and consumers might embrace new approaches to eating, welcoming technological advances and new foods.
Innovators all over the world are already showing what is possible, reaching both poor and rich communities, linking farmers with consumers, and closing the circle in our use of precious resources. By following these leads, governments can drive this change, industry facilitate it, and people demand and welcome both the change and the public policies behind it.
Within a generation, we can transform how we grow, process and eat for the better. We can forge new diets – for healthier people and a healthier planet.