Crisis Looming Unless We Radically Change Our Diet

Food will define the future more than any other sector and how we meet the world’s demand for food will define the future of Australian agriculture. What we eat, how we produce it and how it gets to us has and will increasingly have the greatest impact on the environment and public health.

Think about the paradoxes in food. Right now, almost 1 billion people around the world are hungry. At the same time almost 2 billion people are eating too much of the wrong food. In fact, unhealthy diets mean, this year, 11 million of us will die earlier than we should. More people are sick and die from eating badly than from drugs, alcohol and tobacco combined.

This is not a third world problem. Food insecurity in UK is among worst in Europe, especially for children. Nearly one in five UK children under 15 live in a home where the parents cannot afford to put food on the table. In Australia more than one in five children live in a food-insecure household. Going hungry is common. One in 10 parents living in a food-insecure household say their children go a whole day without eating at all at least once a week. On the other hand, one-third of all food produced is lost or wasted — around 1.3 billion tonnes of food — costing the global economy close to $940 billion each year. In Australia, over 5 million tonnes of food ends up as landfill, enough to fill 9000 Olympic swimming pools.

And while Australians once believed we rode on the sheep’s back, a 2012 study found 75 per cent of Australian children in their final year of primary school believed cotton socks came from animals and 27 per cent were convinced yoghurt grew on trees. Almost a third of British primary school children thought cheese was made from plants and a quarter thought fish fingers came from chicken or pigs.

The problem with all this is that while issues like climate change are high on Australian’s radar, the creeping crisis with food is not. By 2050, over 9 billion people will share this planet.

Demand for protein globally will have increased 80 per cent. If we are going to feed the world’s population without destroying its natural resources, the way we source and consume food has to change. Today delivering more food at lower cost means 75 per cent of the world’s food comes from just 5 animals and 12 plants.

Our reliance on animal-based proteins cannot be sustained.

The landmark EAT/Lancet study lays the facts clearly on the table. If the human race is going to survive beyond 2050 we need move away from animal proteins and transform the way we eat.

Lancet editor Richard Horton said of the study: “The dominant diets that the world has been producing and eating for the past 50 years are no longer nutritionally optimal, are a major contributor to climate change, and are accelerating erosion of natural biodiversity. Agricultural production is at the highest level it has ever been, but is neither resilient nor sustainable, and intensive meat production is on an unstoppable trajectory comprising the single greatest contributor to climate change.”

But this is just not a production and environmental issue. It is also a demand issue.

The health-conscious Millennials and Gen Zs are thoughtful about what they eat, while demanding choice, quality and convenience. We have seen a clear shift towards vegetarian diets and clean organic eating. These younger consumers prefer locally grown and expect transparency about the origins of their food. This desire for ethical food is having a direct impact on our supply chain, with all our suppliers at Compass required to demonstrate a commitment to the prevention of human slavery, compliance with sustainable agricultural practices and the humane treatment of animals. In the near future total traceability from paddock to plate will be a reality.

Today in the West, we produce food based on emotion and preference, almost blind to what actual demand may be. Improved demand sophistication combined with trends like clean eating, freshness, vegetarianism and localism will reduce waste and limit the environmental impact of food production.

Technology is part of the solution. US-based food multinational Cargill is now investing in disrupters like Memphis Meat, which is developing beef, chicken and duck grown directly from animal cells. Brooklyn-based Edenworks grows produce and fish in aquaponic ecosystems. It is already supplying greens to Whole Foods. The plants are grown with nutrients provided by the waste from farmed fish. It plans to commercially sell the fish, striped bass and later shrimp and salmon.

The bottom line is that unless we change, the 9 billion people in the world by 2050 will either not be fed or our natural resources will have been destroyed in the process. No one business can tackle these issues alone. As the EAT/Lancet report says, transformational change “can only be achieved through widespread, multisector, multi-level action that includes a substantial global shift towards healthy dietary patterns, large reductions in food loss and waste, and major improvements in food production practices”.

Mark van Dyck is the managing director, Asia Pacific, of global catering business Compass Group

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