Not long ago, major news publications reported a study about the health benefits of red wine. A little later, others reported that alcohol, even one glass of red wine, is bad for you.
I am worried. Not about wine, about the way science is reported.
Conflicting reports on everything from dark chocolate to dietary supplements only damage public perceptions of science and facts. We shouldn’t take public interest in science and health for granted. People will become immune to sensationalised headlines, if they aren’t already.
The scientific community must not be the boy who cried wolf — not over chocolate and wine. Today’s food and health issues are too important – and there may be even more serious ones on the horizon.
The human population is growing fast: by 2050, it is expected to reach 9.8 billion people. Demand for food will be at an all-time high, putting much pressure on the planet’s resources. Food systems already use huge amounts of raw materials, land, energy and water. They are both causing, and being impacted by, climate change, pollution, waste, socioeconomic disparity and even conflict.
Nor do they deliver enough nutrition – or the right kind of it. Nearly two billion people are undernourished: around another two billion are overweight.
This is troubling because good nutrition is the foundation of human and socio-economic health. Nutrition shapes us from the moment we are conceived. Science suggests that a proper diet during the first 1,000 days of life is critical for physical and mental development – and lifelong productivity. And of course, it reduces health care costs since well-nourished people fall sick less.
We need to upgrade today’s food systems so that all people have access to healthy choices. And, as we can’t endlessly sacrifice the earth and its global commons, we must carefully consider how to address human health needs with respect for the environment.
Fixing our food systems
The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health has brought together 20 leading scientists from around the world to help reach a scientific consensus that defines a healthy and sustainable diet. It will issue a report later this year which could give more insight into these dilemmas and help policymakers and the private sector reimagine food and agriculture for greater productivity, less waste and less environmental impact. It will be an important step toward eradicating hunger, improving health and healing the planet.
However, there are some concerns which the report may not address. Food is extremely personal and cultural, even aspirational. From taste and experience to price and convenience, different factors drive what people like and what they can afford, and they vary around the world. In Asia, for example, the average person eats 150kg of white rice a year, compared to just 12 kg in the US. No matter how sustainable or available food may be, it has to consider cultural differences like these.
Businesses can develop solutions that work with, rather than against, these regional preferences. In Asia, for example, people may want to switch from regular white to fortified rice – which looks, cooks and tastes the same but contains more micronutrients.
Raising awareness about nutrition is also key. When consumers know more about the implications for health they are more likely to make good choices. So fact-based reporting on nutrition studies is important.
Change is not easy, either for individuals or for society. Science should be the North Star guiding us toward better personal and better business decisions. But the sky is full of stars and, as they say, diversity is the spice of life. So let’s embrace our cultural differences and create food systems that work for everyone.
This article first appeared in The Guardian.