When I joined Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) some years ago, I couldn’t understand why they were silent on the topic of food. After all, even by conservative estimates, the production of the world’s food is responsible for the majority of land degradation, biodiversity loss and fresh water use, and for around one third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Modern epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease all relate to our changing diet, and diet is the number one risk factor in the global burden of disease.
After volunteering to write a DEA Position Statement on diet and agriculture, the problems quickly became clear. Food and agriculture is a huge, complex, and contradictory field, and it’s also something on which everyone, absolutely everyone, has an opinion.
Researching food and food systems led me to some of the most riveting non-fiction reading imaginable.
The story of food is one of culture, identity, inequality and social justice, power and wealth. The scope is huge. It takes us from the estimated one billion microbes in a teaspoon of healthy soil, to the sweeping changes made by agriculture to the planetary landscape.
Food has layers of meaning. Providing food to friends and family is one way in which humans demonstrate love, and yet paradoxically the provision of food has evolved into a global system which fails to respect the most basic rights of humans and animals and planetary health.
Out of the complexity of this far-reaching topic, a few very clear and simple truths have emerged for me:
- Change is urgent and we need to do everything we can.
Put bluntly, the way we eat is making us sick, and the way that we produce and distribute food is making our planet sick.
Too much energy is wasted on arguing about what is the “main problem” or the “best solution”. Big, complex problems need lots of solutions.
For instance, meat production and consumption is one of the major issues, in terms of health and environmental impact, the power of vested interests, and the variety of conflicting opinions.
One person may be passionately devoted to promoting a vegan lifestyle, another will quote evidence that the most effective action is to reduce the meat consumption of the heaviest meat eaters, while another will want to support the livestock farmers who are trying to improve the sustainability of their operations.
Please let’s not argue amongst ourselves. We need all of these approaches; they are complementary.
- Doctors are a vital part of the solution.
Doctors are trusted messengers, and people want their doctor to help them cut through the confusion surrounding nutrition. People are more likely to make changes to their diet for health reasons than for environmental reasons. Merely changing diets to meet standard dietary guidelines can carry significant environmental benefits.
In a world where the marketing budget of Coca Cola is double the annual budget of the entire World Health Organisation, doctors need to educate themselves, and speak up at every opportunity.
- Action is required on a number of levels, simultaneously.
This shouldn’t be seen as daunting or overwhelming, but as an opportunity for anyone who cares about food and health to make a contribution in a way that is meaningful for them, and in a sphere where they have influence.
You can make a difference in your own back garden, or your own shopping habits. You can make a difference in the way you talk to your patients about health and diet. You can work with your community to establish a school or community garden. You can lobby government or industry. All of these things are interlinked, and progress in any one area will pave the way for easier wins in other areas.
- Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
If you want to keep it simple, this introductory line from In Defense of Food by journalist Michael Pollan summarises all you need to know:
To benefit both the environment and human health, reducing consumption of meat and processed food (“edible food-like substances” according to Pollan), and reducing food waste, are the changes most likely to have a significant impact.
- We need to look after our farmers.
Industrial agriculture, with high inputs of fossil fuels, chemicals and pesticides, contributes disproportionately to the environmental impact of food, and is vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate. We need to look after the farmers who are exploring ways of making food production more sustainable, nourishing and resilient.
The beginnings of agriculture allowed for the development of human civilization. Agricultural practices have evolved over the course of human history, and will need to change again if we are to provide a sustainable and nourishing diet for the growing human population which is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, just 32 years away.
We need nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way we produce and consume. All of us can help make this shift possible by making changes in the home, in the workplace and anywhere we can.
Dr Kristine Barnden is a Hobart obstetrician, and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. She will be co-presenting “Agriculture and Food Security” at DEA’s annual conference in Newcastle, NSW, on Sunday 15 April.