Nutrition: Principles Before Position
By Dr Sam Manger and Mark Blencowe
Part 3: We can no longer ignore the externalities of our food choices
“The modern food consumer is confronted with two major challenges: to eat well for themselves and to eat well for the planet. To not achieve both will eventually mean to not achieve either.”
Will it be possible to feed a global population of 10 billion a healthy diet within safe planetary boundaries? This is a pertinent question of ever-growing concern that forces us to look beyond our own individual health to the health of the global ecosystem which supports life on Earth.
In the specific context of health and true cost economics, food manufacturers are allowed to sell a product, for which they bear the costs of production, distribution and marketing. They do not, however, have to cover the costs inherent in the impact of that product, such as health or environmental impacts, i.e. negative externalities. For example, while the specific economic burden of disease related directly to soft drink consumption is unknown, the negative health outcomes of its consumption, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, cause significant healthcare costs in Australia. The total annual cost of type 2 diabetes in Australia is $6 billion annually (1), while CVD costs $7.7 billion annually (2). Much of these costs can be attributed directly to obesity.
In addition to the staggering healthcare costs, the processing, manufacturing, distribution and disposal of soft drink cans and bottles uses huge amounts of energy and water, whilst generating greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the sheer volume of plastic that ends up in waterways throughout the country.
If these costs were to be taken into account, these businesses may be wiped out: a United Nations report concluded that if the biggest global corporations paid for the true cost of the businesses – that is, they were made to pay for their negative externalities – then none of them would be profitable, and if they were unable to dodge their tax bills then they may even operate at a loss (3). It is no surprise, then, that they seek to influence public policy in the manner described earlier.
The environmental impact of food extends beyond just soft drink and junk food: between 20 and 40% of fruits and vegetables are rejected before they even reach the supermarket shelves, largely because they do not meet the supermarket’s cosmetic standards. Further, Australians discard at least 20% of the food they purchase – 4 million tonnes of food every year – which accounts for 12% of our individual emissions annually (4).
Worryingly, while some healthy diets (such as the Mediterranean diet) rightly encourage the consumption of some fish and seafood, almost 80% of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse (5). Large-scale international research implores us to reduce our intake of red and processed meats and increase our consumption of plant foods, both for our health and the planet’s (6). This becomes worrying, however, when we consider that the majority of the world’s population resides in developing countries, whose meat intake is increasing at a staggering rate as they rise from poverty and become more affluent (7). Agricultural practices such as permaculture and regenerative agriculture that demonstrate symbiotic methods that both yield high quality animal and plant produce and regenerate the land offer anecdotal hope and deserve exploration. Farmers like Joel Salatin and Allan Savory have developed techniques that treat the animals well in free range and grass fed ways but also builds top soil (which sinks carbon into the soil and hence can act as a net benefit), improves water tables, regenerates biodiversity and at the same time provide meat that is healthier with higher omega 3 rations, higher range of antioxidants as they are feeding on more varied grasses, improved fat profiles and no antibiotics or growth hormones. Both of these leaders have TED talks worthy of a watch. There are also wild pest animals like rabbits, camels and pigs that are edible and are ecologically destructive. Then of course if you are really keen you can rear your own animals, eggs from backyard chickens are an easy place to start. The difficulty with this is that regenerative agriculture and permaculture sources of meat are not common and can be more expensive.
Thus, the modern food consumer is confronted with two major challenges: to eat well for themselves and to eat well for the planet. To not achieve both will eventually mean to not achieve either.
If you are interested in pursuing any of the ideas outlined above, my recent podcast with Joel Salatin explores this topic in depth:
#97 Farms, Food and Health with Joel Salatin
- Shaw, J., Tanamas, S.. (2012). Diabetes: the silent pandemic and its impact on Australia. Canberra: Diabetes Australia.
- National Heart Foundation of Australia (2012). Cost-effective actions to tackle the biggest killer of men and women: Heart Disease. Canberra: National Heart Foundation of Australia
- Trucost (2013). Natural capital at risk: the top 100 externalities of business. London: Trucost
- Food Waste Fast Facts [Internet]. Foodwise. 2020 [cited 7 May 2020]. Available from: http://www.foodwise.com.au/foodwaste/food-waste-fast-facts/
- Food and Agricultural Organization (2011). Review of the state of world marine fishery resources. Rome: FAO
- Willett W, Rockstrom J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T, Vermeulen S, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019;393(10170):447-92.
- 2. Delgado C. Rising Consumption of Meat and Milk in Developing Countries Has Created a New Food Revolution. The Journal of Nutrition. 2003;133(11):3907S-3910S.