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Too much for one planet: WHO study proposes new tools to make our diets healthy and environmentally friendly

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Modern food systems in the WHO European Region and beyond are associated with poor public health outcomes and are unsustainable. To address this global problem, the new WHO study “Sustainable food profiling models to inform the development of food labels that account for nutrition and the environment”, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, proposes a procedure for labelling foods according to their environmental and nutritional impact.

If implemented wisely, food profiling models can support and encourage policy-makers to create more sustainable and nutritional food systems that allow consumers to make informed choices about their diets.

Food consumption today: using up precious resources

Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the Region, and are a risk factor for many noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer. In the European Union alone, unhealthy diets cause around 1 million deaths each year.

At the same time, the production and consumption of food products are responsible for around 30% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Food production is also a major driver of biodiversity loss, occupies 50% of habitable land, and accounts for 70% of freshwater withdrawals.

Overall, today’s food consumption patterns are not conducive to better health and exceed what the planet’s resources can withstand in the near future.

In response to this trend, the new study carried out by researchers of WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD Office) and the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford focused on food profiling models to create more nutritious and environmentally friendly food supply chains.

Food profiling models: encouraging a sustainable future

The study reviews today’s food profiling models that can be called sustainable – those that assess both the environmental and nutritional performance of different food products. Sustainable food profiling models serve as the scientific basis for labelling foods according to their environmental and nutritional impact.

“If labels on food products hold information on how healthy and environmentally friendly these foods are, they will help consumers to make better decisions in terms of their diets and the environment, and will benefit people’s health in any Member State,” said Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, Acting Head of the NCD Office.

“To date, there is no nationally or internationally agreed system to label food products’ sustainability. So, the aim of the new WHO study was to review what food profiling models have been developed by university research groups and others,” explained Dr Mike Rayner, who collaborated on the research. Dr Rayner is a professor at the Nuffield Department of Population Health and Director of its WHO Collaborating Centre on Population Approaches for NCD Prevention.

What makes food environmentally friendly?

All of the food profiling models assessed by the WHO study measure greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of food. But this is not the only factor to be aware of when considering the sustainability of a food product.

For example, approximately 50% of habitable land globally is used for food production and therefore contributes to biodiversity loss. This highlights the importance of such environmental indicators as “land use” and “biodiversity loss”.

“Results of the review indicate that at least 18 different environmental indicators exist that can be used to assess the sustainability of food products. Applying the assessment to food supply chains in different countries of the WHO European Region requires consensus on the indicator selection and country-specific data,” added Ms Anne Charlotte Bunge, lead author of the study.

Many studies have consistently found that in order for labelling information to be useful for consumers, a format with the same underlying criteria should be used across all foods. But creating a unified food profiling model that will benefit people’s health and the environment in all Member States requires political leverage across the Region.

Bringing health and environment together

“This study demonstrates the need to account for both nutrition and environmental sustainability indicators in food profiling models. On this basis, we can create a tool to promote sustainable public health nutrition across the WHO European Region,” said Dr Afton Halloran, a co-author of the study and a member of the NCD Office’s team on healthy and sustainable diets.

The systematic review is timely, considering the importance of a standardized method for assessing and labelling the sustainability of food products in the food retail sector. This is a priority under the European Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy.

Supplying adequate nutrition within planetary boundaries is key to achieving international health and environmental targets, such as those included in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the WHO European Programme of Work 2020–2025 (EPW).

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