The climate crisis is in full force and yet, our greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Experts predict this will likely make our planet uninhabitable by the end of the century and contribute to numerous environmental disasters, in addition to food and water shortages well before then if action is not taken.

Nutrition Professionals as Environmental Stewards and Climate Champions

August 26, 2021
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 Min Read

THE CLIMATE CRISIS IS HAPPENING NOW

The climate crisis is in full force and yet, our greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Experts predict this will likely make our planet uninhabitable by the end of the century and contribute to numerous environmental disasters, in addition to food and water shortages well before then if action is not taken [1]. Global  warming  has already had many negative health repercussions, not only  by increasing the incidence and spread of diseases like malaria and dengue fever in developing countries, but by contributing to many of the chronic conditions we as practitioners see on a regular basis, in developed areas like the United States such as respiratory, cardiovascular and heat-related health issues.  Additionally, experts claim that these kinds of chronic health issues have been associated with poorer outcomes of COVID, creating further urgency around the need to make significant changes [2].

Climate change also threatens our food system which ultimately means it threatens our survival.  In their Special Report on Climate Change and Land released in 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that extreme weather events like drought, flood and fires are resulting in reduced crop yields, increased pests, less arable land and soil that is not only less healthy but less resilient to natural and unnatural disasters.   If global warming is to be kept below the goal set by the Paris Agreement of 2 degrees Celsius, greenhouse gas emissions need to be at zero by mid-century [3].  But there’s hope!  Food is a critical component in the fight against climate change.  Did someone say “food”? Yes. And where food is, dietitians and other nutrition professionals are. Or, we need to be, especially as it relates to the rapidly changing climate.

Many individuals have sought to reduce their carbon footprint by driving or flying less, recycling more, taking shorter showers, buying eco-friendly products, using different light bulbs, and perhaps by participating in political actions targeting the fossil fuel industry. What is not commonly known is that around 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from our global food system [4].  Additionally, our food system is one of largest drivers of biodiversity loss and ocean acidification, which further exacerbate the climate crisis by reducing the earth’s ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. It’s imperative that nutrition professionals and healthcare practitioners are a part of creating a sustainable, resilient and regenerative food system that is  aligned with the Paris Agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals. How we grow, harvest, transport, process, produce, package, distribute, consume and waste food is a major part of the climate problem.  But good news!  It may also be part of the solution.

NUTRITION PROFESSIONALS HAVE A SUBSTANTIAL ROLE TO PLAY

Specifically, as nutrition professionals and practitioners, we have a tremendous role to play. Addressing climate change, takes a holistic approach both in understanding the contributing factors and finding  the potential solutions.  As systems thinkers, we understand what it means to seek out and tackle those root causes, connect dots, and work to restore balance in a disrupted and dysfunctional system.  We have a keen understanding of the interplay of the numerous components that determine a person’s wellness picture.  The food system, like the human body,  is also a series of interacting components all of which have an impact on the health of that food system and ultimately the planet.   Effectively addressing the crisis means looking at  all the contributing factors that have created a dysfunctional food system. It also means considering the many sectors that this system affects from the health of humans and environmental ecosystems, farmworkers and undermines cultural practices and fuels racism.   and and understanding how to make impactful shifts that have exponential positive effects.

Additionally, many of us see nature as a healing force and an integral part of therapeutic lifestyle interventions for numerous health issues, so we may already be incorporating discussions of the environment in our patient and client interactions.   Lastly, we work to prevent disease with food and lifestyle as medicine approaches that can potentially reduce the need for additional healthcare, purported to be responsible for around 9% of greenhouse gases [5].

So where does one begin? You may have heard the buzz word “sustainable” in relationship to diets and the food system, and yet many argue that the current system is not anything that we would want to sustain.   Industrial agricultural practices have had a devastating effect on the health of our soil, harming  this underground ecosystem which helps bring nutritional value to the very foods we are recommending. The goal now is to bring resilience and regeneration to the system as it faces more challenges with extreme weather patterns wreaking havoc on the land, and with COVID further revealing the immense disparities and lack of equity apparent in communities of color and indigenous populations in terms of both environment-related health repercussions and food access [6].  We need to work towards a food system that “conserves and renews natural resources, advances social justice and animal welfare, builds community wealth, and fulfills the food and nutrition needs of all eaters now and in the future" [7]. Below are three key ways for dietitians to take an active role.

ADVOCATE FOR MORE PLANT-BASED FOODS AND LESS MEAT CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCTION

One of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases in our food system is our current industrial animal agriculture system. Animal products like beef and dairy contribute to around 15% of global greenhouse gases which is more than the entire transportation sector [8].  This is attributed to:

  1. ​​Massive deforestation to raise both cattle and grow the crops that feed them, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
  2. The chemical inputs into the land, like fertilizer which produces another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.
  3. The burped-up byproducts of cattle digestion that emit massive amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is far stronger and traps heat much more so than Co2.


Interestingly enough, globally, the supply of red meat is at 568% of what the population needs for a healthy diet.   Yet, we fall short of meeting the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables as well as the beans, grains, nuts and seeds that  are produced using lower energy-intensive systems and far fewer resources [9].  While there is, of course an important place in our food system for humane and sustainable animal agriculture [10], one of the biggest changes we can help individuals, communities and institutions make is to promote a more plant-based diet. Whether this is in one on one counseling, efforts made in a hospital or cafeteria food service setting, in the planning for an in-person conference or event or working with large food brands and companies, dietitians can change the conversation. Unfortunately, the argument for meat reduction isn’t as simple as individuals substituting a burger for a veggie patty a few times a week.  As dietitians, we need to also be working with and demanding that food service companies like Compass, Sodexo and Aramark make their offerings more climate friendly. These organizations are providing much of the food for millions of individuals at universities, colleges, stadiums and hospitals.   Reducing the purchasing of red meat by 30 percent would be the equivalent of taking a million cars off the roads over 10 years [11].  We also need a major systemic overhaul of the US government’s role, that would include subsidizing different foods and changing public policy. While it’s clear that agribusinesses need to be shouldering much of the responsibility of greenhouse gas emissions, we also know from watching numerous movements, consumer demand has and can participate in driving system change. Multiply these kinds of consumer and institutional decisions and purchases by 10 thousand (or even 10 million) and the food industry is going to take notice.  We may not do all the convincing. There has been a growing interest from consumers in purchasing foods with lower environmental impact [12].

ENCOURAGE AND PROMOTE REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE AND AGROECOLOGICAL PRACTICES

Regenerative Agriculture goes beyond “organic” in that  it actively focuses on improving upon the health of the system and is both working in harmony with nature as well as supporting farmer and animal welfare. Soil is also key here. We know that when the soil is healthier, the humans who eat food grown in that soil are healthier.  But soil is so much more than that.  It can act as both a “carbon sink”, that is, holding carbon in the ground instead of its entering into the atmosphere, and as a water filter. Because of current industrial agricultural practices, soil has been degraded and its carbon holding potential compromised [13]. Healthy soil not only increases nutrient status and bolsters plant resistance to disease, but is more resilient to the effects of extreme weather events and promotes biodiversity which makes the land less susceptible to pathogens.  Agroecology takes it a step further in that it brings in both a respect for food culture and food governance by local populations and indigenous peoples [14].  Not only is this key for helping to promote racial justice which is intricately intertwined with climate justice, but we also have much to learn from the farming practices of indigenous  peoples who may be able to offer  invaluable support and wisdom through this crisis.

As dietitians, we can not only advocate for shopping at local farmers markets for those who are lucky enough to have access to them, but  we can be working with restaurants, chefs and institutions to include more locally and regeneratively grown foods as part of their food sourcing.   In fact, we are perfectly positioned to solidify the argument that these eco-friendlier practices also foster human health. We can work to amplify the voices of indigenous and black farmers and be involved in the world of policy as well, working to ensure that the USDA  and our dietary guidelines consider the potential benefits of promoting these kinds of agricultural practices as well as the risks of maintaining the system as is [15].

WORK TO REDUCE FOOD LOSS AND WASTE

This might be the action we can champion that will have the least amount of friction, since it may not pose the same challenges as does changing dietary habits or having access to certain foods.  Food loss and waste is significant worldwide. When food decomposes in landfills, it generates substantial quantities of methane, which, as mentioned above is more potent than carbon dioxide.   On average we waste around 30-40% of the food currently produced (about 1200 calories/person) which accounts for approximately 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions. The peach never makes it off the tree, farmers can’t sell eggplant with an extra nose, many of us allow groceries and prepared foods to rot in our refrigerators, restaurants discard plates of unfinished hash browns, and numerous institutional facilities throw out tons of food yearly. In fact, if all the world’s food losses and waste were represented as a country, that “country” would be the third highest greenhouse gas emitter, after China and the US [16].    Yes, composting is an option, but all the energy and resources that went into creating that wasted food don’t just disappear and must be factored in.  Again, nutrition professionals can be educators and allies here, not only in our ability to get creative about how to turn borderline produce into delicious meals,  but to advise around the “best by” labels, design composting programs, and offer guidance around conservative purchasing practices.

AS A COLLECTIVE, LET'S SEIZE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE AN IMPACT.

The intersection of the food system, the environment and human health is nothing short of complex, but as experts in the food and nutrition space, we have an incredible opportunity (and obligation) to be trailblazers in the fight around climate change.   No matter what sector of the nutrition field we work in, we can exert our influence in many areas, from individual and institutional food consumption to national level food policy. Whether we work with what’s being eaten, how it’s being grown or how it’s being disposed of, we can make a difference.  If you write, speak publicly or have an online platform, you can use it to educate on and promote these ideas and to make plant based food look as delicious as humanly possible.  If you are in academia, you can incorporate issues of sustainability and regenerative agriculture into any and all aspects of your curriculum.  Again, as systems thinkers and those with a vested interest in human wellness, we cannot separate a healthy foods system from a healthy biological or eco-system. The good news is that the foods that are healthy for humans are usually those that have a lighter environmental footprint [17].  It appears that once again, food is not only medicine for the person, but for the planet and nutrition professionals are leading the charge.

REFERENCES

  1. Global Warming and Life on Earth. Center for Biological Diversity website.    https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/climate_law_institute/global_warming_and_life_on_earth/index.html   Accessed August, 2020.
  2. People with Certain Medical Conditions. Center for Disease Control and Prevention Website. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html. Updated Sept 11, 2020.  Accessed September 14th, 2020.
  3. AR5 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2014–Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Regional Aspects. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Website. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/ Published, 2014. Accessed August, 2020.
  4. Vermeulen SJ, Campbell BM, & Ingram JS. Climate change and food systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 2012 37:1, 195-222. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-environ-020411-130608
  5. Francis, D et al. How healthcare can help heal communities and the planet. BMJ 2019; 365 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l2398 (Published 17 June 2019)
  6. Kirby, T. Evidence mounts on the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine. VOLUME 8, ISSUE 6, P547-548, JUNE 01, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7211498/
  7. Tagtow A, Robien K, Bergquist E, et al. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Standards of professional performance for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (Competent, Proficient, and Expert) in Sustainable, Resilient, and Healthy Food and Water Systems. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014;114(3):475-488.e24. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2013.11.011
  8. Gerber PJ, Steinfeld, Henderson B, et al. Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. 2013.  http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3437e.pdf
  9. Krishna Bahadur KC, Dias GM, Veramani A, Swanton CJ, Fraser D, et al. When too much isn’t enough: Does current food production meet global nutritional needs? PLOS ONE 2018 13(10): e0205683.  https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0205683
  10. Hamerschlag K. Less and Better Meat is Key for a Healthier Planet . Friends of the Earth. https://foe.org/less-better-meat-key-healthier-planet/. Published August 29, 2018. Accessed June 12, 2020.
  11. Bergen, Sujatha. Food Service Companies Must Act Following New Climate Report. National Resources Defense Council Website. Published August 9th, 2019.  https://www.nrdc.org/experts/food-service-companies-must-act-following-new-climate-report Accessed. August 2020
  12. Fromm, J. How Sustainable Food Brands Can Appeal to Today's Most Influential Consumers.  Forbes Website. Published February 2018.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/jefffromm/2018/02/02/how-sustainable-food-brands-can-appeal-to-todays-most-influential-consumers/#c02c28e22103  Accessed August 2020.
  13. Hamburg, S.P., Vadeboncoeur, M.A., Johnson, C.E. et al. Losses of mineral soil carbon largely offset biomass accumulation 15 years after whole-tree harvest in a northern hardwood forest. Biogeochemistry 2019;144, 1–14
  14. Overview: Agroecology Knowledge Hub. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Website. http://www.fao.org/agroecology/overview/en/. Published 2020. Accessed June 11, 2020.
  15. Diets for a Better Future. Eat Forum Website. Published 2020. https://eatforum.org/knowledge/diets-for-a-better-future/ Accessed August 2020.
  16. Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources. Summary Report. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Website. Published 2013.  Accessed August 2020. http://www.fao.org/3/i3347e/i3347e.pdf
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