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Our Insights 18 Nov 2014

Why Low-Impact Diets Are the Next Big Opportunity

By Matt Loose

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This article was co-written by Matt Loose and Aimee Watson.

What if everyone could have access to food that meets their dietary needs without preventing future generations from meeting theirs? That’s the idea at the heart of sustainable nutrition. Increased attention to the environmental impacts of food types drives interest in sustainable nutrition, helping spur innovation and interest in those foods that can deliver nutritional value with a reduced environmental footprint.

The agricultural footprint — the land required to grow the food sold — of the world’s largest global food companies, producers and traders is huge. As food demand increases in line with an increasing population, demand for land will grow.

Furthermore, the food industry has been affected by some of the most acute sustainability challenges we face today. Our changing climate will force shifts in where, how and what is grown. Globally, issues of droughts and floods as well as salinization and desertification will scramble the agricultural map as we know it and may reduce crop production. Falling temperatures will decrease crop yields at lower latitudes whilst other yields increase in higher regions.

To take just one example, researchers predict a two-thirds reduction in production in the world’s premier, typically lower lying wine regions such as France, Italy and California, and an increase in previously unsuitable (higher) regions such as the hills of Central China and the UK.

Growing populations are expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, forcing intensification of farming practices. Population increase, combined with changes to our diets, may mean farmers produce 70 percent more food by 2050 (90 percent of which is expected to come from intensification and higher-yield techniques). At the same time, we face rapid growth in acute diet-related disease, from obesity (an increase of 8 percent since 1980), to diabetes (186 million increase expected by 2030), heart conditions (set to remain the No. 1 killer globally with an expected death toll of 23.3 million by 2030) and cancers (an additional 8 million cases expected by 2030).

It is little wonder, then, that there is rapid innovation in the area of sustainable food, and that sustainable nutrition is emerging as an important new measure of food sustainability.

Progress on sustainable nutrition requires examining the full value chain of food products — from agricultural production to processing, preparation and disposal. Work is converging towards a common set of life-cycle-analysis type indicators including CO2, water and land use. Multi-national and multi-stakeholder projects are underway to develop appropriate measures. One such example is the work of the Sustainability Consortium, working to establish data sets for the life-cycle environmental and social impacts of food.

The environmental impact of your diet

With sustainable nutrition information in hand, food companies have begun comparing the environmental impacts of diets, menu options and food ingredients. The results of this research will be of huge importance to food scientists hoping to design low-impact foods. For example, there is significant interest in the potential to use flours from dried beans and legumes known as pulse flours, which are high in protein, as ingredients to reduce environmental impact and improve nutritional quality of commonly eaten affordable foods such as pasta.

How to communicate this information to non-expert consumer audiences is key, with clever infographics, ratios and labelling all playing their parts. For example, the carbon footprint comparing types of meats to types of crops might be expressed as car miles driven per 4 ounces consumed. Ultimately, though, environmentally better products also have to taste better, be better quality and be priced better for consumers’ preferences in order for change to happen at scale. As a result, innovation in vegetarian food offerings is picking up pace.

As scientists and consumers better understand the life-cycle of food, and as the sustainable-nutrition discussion gains momentum, designing menus and diets will become increasingly sophisticated. It will be possible to take into account a comprehensive environmental impact that’s far more advanced than the separate “issue labels” such as carbon footprint, sustainable sourcing or organic labels that are found on food today.

The implications of this important step forward are game-changing. Big food buyers could have the tools to design “environmentally friendly” menus. Retailers can be benchmarked on the sustainability of the food they sell. And investment in food companies can be made to target those with sustainable and nutritious portfolios.

Ultimately, the food companies with portfolios that combine superior environmental performance and more nutritious products will be the future stars of the food industry. The innovation and technology that surround sustainable nutrition suggests that this could be just around the corner — an exciting time for the food industry indeed.

This article originally appeared in What’s Next, SustainAbility’s column for GreenBiz.

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