Alternative diets offer big benefits

Rising incomes and urbanidation are driving a global dietary transition in which traditional diets are replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats.

By 2050, these dietary trends, if unchecked, would be a major contributor to an estimated 80% increase in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from food production and global land clearing.

Moreover, these dietary shifts are greatly increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower global life expectancies. Alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent such diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases.

These warnings come from the University of Minnesota’s Professor of Ecology, G David Tilman, and graduate student Michael Clark’s recent article in Nature, one of the most prominent peer-reviewed science journals. Their data comes from 50 years of research papers from over 100 countries.

The Gold, Silver and Bronze diets they recommend for coping with this “diet-environment-health trilemma” are, in order: vegetarian, pescetarian (fish and vegetarian), and Mediterranean.

Last week also saw the publication of evidence that Europe has 421 million fewer birds than it had in 1980. “We suspect that the declines are being caused by agricultural intensification and changing agricultural practices,” said lead researcher Rich Inger, associate research fellow at the University of Exeter. In particular, “monocultures and increased pesticide use are likely to blame”, he said.

So what to do? Professor Paulo Tittonell pointed to some solutions. He is a professor or associate professor in three universities, including Europe’s leading agricultural institute, Wageningen, and a keynote speaker at the recent UN FAO international symposium on agro-ecology.

He said, “’extensify western agriculture, intensify agriculture in developing countries.”

It is worth remembering in this context that 70% of the world is fed by small farmers in the developing world: in other worlds, the west doesn’t feed the world, it feeds itself.

“The Western approach to farming uses a lot of energy and water, causes pollution, and depletes the soil. The negative side effects do not show in the price of the products, being subsidised by the government. Which once made sense. Faced with a growing population in the cities, the system was aimed at feeding as many mouths as possible by as few farmers as possible, in the cheapest way. But it is not a sustainable model. It is delivering cheap produce because the external costs are not charged to the consumer.”

While not against the judicious use of mineral fertilisers, he pointed to specific benefits of organic farming.

“Ten years ago an article in Nature claimed that organically managed soil has more biodiversity, which you need for a higher production. It was received with scepticism. Now these results are accepted. The science of soil biology is going forward at a high pace. We find that clever combinations of crops in space and time can bring better yields than the mere use of fertilisers and pesticides.”

It is especially noteworthy that Tittonell’s comments were contextualised by hunger: he sees methods typically used in organic farming being adopted in developing world countries, along with basic infrastructure improvements, as the best way to fight global hunger.

To tackle diet, health, environmental and hunger problems all at once — a quadlemma — the agri-food system may have to focus on both increasing general application of organic farming techniques, while also heralding in significant dietary change.

This is an inconvenient truth for the Irish agri-food sector, where organic farming is less than 2%, where the take-up of organic techniques into conventional is paltry, and where our exports are far from those Gold, Silver and Bronze categories Tilman and Clarke recommend.

And if anti-smoking-like legislation starts to emerge for the foods they and so many others point the finger at — refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats — where then for Irish exports?


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