– by Jeni Miller –

In 2006 I worked on a major public health initiative to reduce obesity in California, called “Healthy Eating, Active Communities”. Obesity in the US is still at epidemic levels, affecting nearly 40% of US adults according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bringing with it increased diabetes and heart disease, and a host of other health issues.

Overweight and obesity are also on the rise around the world, including in low and middle income countries, with 1.9 billion people, globally, overweight according to 2016 data from the World Health Organization. Unhealthy diets, including excess meat and dairy consumption and reliance on processed foods, are one of the five major drivers of non-communicable diseases. On top of this, about one fourth of food produced goes to waste, while 820 million people face hunger and malnutrition.

In that California initiative back in 2006, we focused on helping people to eat a more balanced and plant-rich diet – especially, to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables – by making the changes in local neighborhoods that supported them to do so. This meant school and community gardens, local farm to school and farm to table programs, fresh produce in local corner stores, even tackling junk food advertising and fast food. We knew back then that to protect people’s health, we needed to substantially reshape the way our food was produced, processed, and sold.

Today, globally, we’re facing a much bigger food system challenge.

On 8 August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Special Report on Climate Change and Land. The report finds that, without major, transformative changes to our food systems and how we manage our forests, to complement a rapid transition of our energy systems away from fossil fuels, we will not be able to limit global warming to the 1.5°C needed to protect human health. And if we fail to limit warming to 1.5°C, we will in turn irrevocably damage the soils that grow the crops that feed us.

Our current food system is not healthy, not sustainable, and not necessary. The way we produce food today is responsible for as much as 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report. The intensely industrial farming practices of today rely heavily on pesticides and on fossil fuel-based fertilizers, which contaminate our soil and water and the foods themselves. The use of antibiotics in agriculture is a major contributor to the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, undermining one of medicine’s most powerful tools to fight disease. Agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water and half of all ice-free land, the majority of this for livestock, with ongoing deforestation to have more land available for cattle and for animal feed production. Industrial farming and processed foods also cause greenhouse gases through processing and transport.

Climate change in turn is having devastating impacts on the lands on which we depend, with heat, drought and desertification, as well as flooding, destroying farmland and harvests. In one of the report’s starkest findings, global warming of 2°C could trigger simultaneous food crises in multiple regions of the world.

Last fall health organizations from around the world representing over 5 million doctors, nurses and other health professionals, issued a Call to Action on Climate and Health, including in our 10 priority actions:

“Build local, healthy, and sustainable food and agricultural systems. By changing what we eat, and how we grow, harvest and transport our food, we can protect our health and significantly reduce our carbon footprint. Practices that conserve and regenerate our soil, conserve our water, and sustain our fisheries are essential to safeguard our food supply in the face of climate impacts. Building resilient local food systems can support the livelihoods of agricultural communities, expand access to healthy food, and reduce carbon emissions.

Key policies include:

  • Reduce meat consumption and production, and expand plant-based diets.
  • Reduce food waste.
  • End deforestation for the expansion of industrial agriculture.
  • Promote legal, trade, and financing policies that prioritize and enable sustainable agro-ecological practices and reduce reliance on industrial animal-based agriculture and environmentally damaging agricultural and fisheries practices.”

The IPCC report explains that making the food system and land use changes that avert climate breakdown offers an array of interconnected benefits, like drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere, while combating desertification and land degradation, and enhancing food security.

What this demands is an urgent, wholesale transformation of our land use. Sustainable approaches in our food system, including improved farming practices, reduced waste, and thoughtful food choices that are good for our forests and fields and for our health, can and must be a part of the climate change solution. Our window of opportunity to make such changes is small indeed. As Eric Toensmeier, author of The Carbon Farm Solution notes, “delaying action could result in irreversible damage to the ecosystems which are the basis of human society and our economies.”

In public health, we’ve known for years that our current food system isn’t healthy for people, and that there are ways to make it better. What the IPCC Lands report makes clear is that it’s also not healthy for our climate or the land on which we depend. Transforming how we approach food offers a win-win, for human health, for ecosystems, for a stable climate, but we must act now.