Written by Alisa - 3 Minutes reading time

“Appetite for Change”: Research group gives UN blueprint for sustainable food systems

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A new report for the UN has unveiled a comprehensive strategy to halve nitrogen pollution from agriculture and food systems in Europe, including reducing meat and dairy consumption, fertiliser use, and food waste.

Titled Appetite for Change, the report offers actionable solutions from a group of researchers coordinated by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), the European Commission, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, the Netherlands.

The report presents key recommendations to address major challenges in the food system. Among these strategies is the proposal to halve meat and dairy consumption, emphasising incorporating plant-based diets and advocating for more efficient utilisation and storage of fertilisers and manure.

Professor Mark Sutton of UKCEH, one of the report’s editors, tells Food Ingredients First: “We considered 144 scenarios, and then selected 12 that achieve a halving of nitrogen waste for more detailed analysis.”

“The best scoring option for net social benefit was one which shared the effort between all actors, including a demitarian approach (half meat and dairy consumption), together with technical measures in wastewater and agriculture.”

Improving agricultural and systemic efficiencies

Nitrogen is an important element for plant growth, but its mismanagement and overuse in agriculture have led to environmental concerns. Excessive and inefficient use of nitrogen means up to a reported 80% of it leaks into the environment in many different polluting forms. The report says inefficiencies in farms, retail, and wastewater practices mean that the nitrogen use efficiency of the food system in Europe is only 18%, leaving most of the remainder leaking into air, water, and soils.

On the agricultural side, Sutton and his colleagues believe different measures, ranging from better manure and fertiliser to better spatial planning, need to be taken into consideration.

“Action does not begin and end at the farm gate — it requires a holistic approach involving not only farmers but policymakers, retailers, water companies and individuals,” Sutton explains.

“In retail, this is mainly about our food choices. For example, our report mentions opportunities for nudging consumers. We also do not exclude the importance of financial incentives. For wastewater, we are looking toward new technologies that look to recapture the nitrogen: turning wastewater back to fertiliser.”

“Every step in the food chain has inefficiencies, so food chains with more steps waste more nitrogen.”

Embracing health and sustainability

The report advises that transitioning to a demitarian diet, which involves “halving” the standard portion of meat products and primarily eating plant-based foods, can indeed exert a beneficial influence on public health, provided it maintains nutritional balance and adheres to health-based recommended amounts for specific food groups. “Eating plants directly is therefore more efficient than growing plants to feed animals and then eating animals. Currently, many citizens eat more meat and dairy than needed for a healthy diet, as well as more calories. A balanced diet can help avoid overweight and obesity, offering health benefits,” Sutton suggests. Susanna Kugelberg, a postdoctoral researcher at Copenhagen Business School, also shares with us: 

“The health benefits depend on how good you are in nutritionally balancing your diet — by avoiding some foods and adding other foods.” 

“A demitarian diet can be both sustainable and healthy. A healthy diet helps to protect against diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.” 

“Most health benefits come from eating a variety of vegetables, fruits and berries, whole grain products, vegetable oils, legumes (pulses) and nuts and seeds.” “Additional health benefits come from cutting down red meat and processed meat, and other additional health effects come from avoiding processed foods in general, especially ‘junk food.’”

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Also published by Foodingredientsfirst.com

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