«How to feed the world without starving the planet»
The nutrition of the future should ensure access to the necessary nutrients for all people and be healthy for the planet. That is the goal. However, developing this kind of “planetary health diet” is not so easy. In the Swiss-Food Talk, experts in science and industry discussed what healthy, environmentally friendly nutrition should look like. One thing is clear: Sustainable food must suit the tastes of the people, meet the specific local needs, and must be affordable.
Monday, September 19, 2022
According to the UNO, the world’s population is set to grow to around 10 billion in the next 30 years. Ensuring there is an adequate supply of food for an additional 2 billion people, compared to today, poses a huge challenge globally – and this is exacerbated by the fact that climate change is affecting agricultural production and will change the way crops are cultivated worldwide, making it much more difficult to do so in many regions. Moreover, 70% of people live in cities, many of them in what are known as megacities, with over 10 million inhabitants.
Collaboration between science and industry is crucial
In order to tackle these challenges, Martijn Sonnevelt of the World Food Systems Center at ETH Zurich believes that a holistic approach to food systems is necessary. Collaboration between science and industry is a decisive component in this. After all, what use are highly sophisticated concepts from foundational research if the means and capacities required for large-scale implementation are unavailable? “This is where the World Food Systems Center acts as a bridge between science and industry”, says Sonnevelt. One focus of the research being done at ETH is into sustainable sources of alternative proteins. In the process, ETH conducts interdisciplinary research projects - for example, in the production of cultivated microalgae or insects. However, an important factor in the research is to consider whether or not the consumers will accept new food products. New food products can only have a positive impact on the environment and health if they are accepted by the people.
Change in dietary habits as the biggest lever
The commercial success of food products that are good for people's health and the planet is largely dependent on the habits and attitudes of the consumers, says Sabine Fortmann, Sustainability Manager at Givaudan. “Changing existing habits when it comes to nutrition offers the most potential for promoting both healthy eating and sustainability,” she says. This is why Givaudan is developing alternatives to foodstuffs that have a considerable impact on the environment, such as meat. The rule of thumb is: Consumers are most likely to accept a product if it is as close as possible to the original in terms of taste. To this end, for example, Givaudan has developed solutions that not only deliver an authentic taste experience, but also enable fat reduction and give the product its typical texture and juiciness. The potential here is enormous. More and more people are becoming flexitarians. The number of people who eat meat on a daily basis is decreasing.
Local impact and affordability cannot be forgotten
Petra Klassen Wigger works as a scientific advisor for Nutrition and Health in Nestlé’s Research and Development department. She is also of the view: “Good for you and good for the planet” must go hand in hand when developing new food products. Yet, she adds another decisive factor to the equation: Food products do not just need to be healthy and environmentally friendly. “People must also be able to afford these food products,” she says. According to Klassen Wigger, three million people worldwide cannot afford to switch to the widely cited Planetary Health Diet, which was presented in the EAT-Lancet Report and recommends a plant-based diet. Another point: The development of new food products must also take into account communities’ local customs and traditions. After all, food is a part of our culture. Additionally, animal proteins play a very crucial role in ensuring the required nutrient density in many regions of Asia and Africa. That's why Klassen Wigger doesn't think it's realistic to turn the whole world into vegans. Animal food products in particular provide plenty of micro-nutrients and proteins (both in qualitative and quantitative terms), meaning that it would be difficult to stop consuming them in many regions. Alternative meat and dairy products with an improved environmental impact will be useful, but they must be adapted to suit the respective local context. She also emphasizes that ultimately, people have to think that the products taste good. Otherwise, they won’t buy them.
The demand for regional products could hardly be greater. This is shown by a new study by the Zurich School of Business. Consumers even consider regional products to be significantly more sustainable than organic or premium products. To keep up with this trend, it is therefore all the more important to promote modern breeding techniques and plant protection products.
The reduced use of plant protection products is causing much smaller wheat and rapeseed harvests. A study carried out by Swiss Agricultural Research reveals that such crop failures can only be offset by state subsidies. This is neither sustainable nor resource-efficient.
The economic interdependence of the world has increased greatly over the past years and decades. Due to the brisk trade activity between the continents, invasive plant and animal species are also spreading faster and faster. This can lead to serious problems for native vegetation and agriculture. According to the FOEN, the canton of Ticino is particularly affected.