Talking sustainability with Dr. Gary Adamkiewicz (Part 1)

Food decisions used to stop at the shelfsupermarket_canned_food.
We saw something we liked, bought it, consumed it, and didn’t think much about it beyond satisfying our hunger. Now, however, we’re peeking past the shelves to trace where our food came from and how it was grown.

In 2015, our food’s “story” is as important as its taste. And one of the most important parts of that story is sustainability.

Food sustainability is a topic of increasing importance as environmental concerns loom large. But what exactly does “sustainability” mean? Here to explain the relationship between food, the environment, and our health is Dr. Gary Adamkiewicz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health and Exposure Disparities in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Dr. Adamkiewicz’s research interests include “food and our future” – including how our daily food decisions have personal, local, and global consequences. He also co-instructs the Harvard Extension School course “From Farm to Fork, Why What You Eat Matters.”

To start, can you tell us exactly what “sustainability” means? It’s a large concept, but how exactly would you define it?

I agree – it’s a large concept without a universal definition. planet_with_arrowsThe term was born out of a goal to examine the long-term effects of human activities on the planet and ourselves. Natural resources and environmental quality cannot be depleted indefinitely without consequences to the global economy, human health, and ecosystems that support life. The most urgent sustainability issue is climate change, which is linked primarily to our historic and ongoing consumption of fossil fuels. More and more, sustainability has become a specific goal of public policy, corporate strategy, as well as daily life decisions. In practice, these goals are achieved by quantifying the use of non-renewable energy and resources in relation to our activities and consumption, and changing behavior and practices to reduce these impacts.

How sustainable is our current food system?

There are definitely reasons for concern. Our modern global food supply puts pressure on natural systems at local, regional, and global scales. Population growth is certainly a driver of consumption, but the way we grow, transport, and process food is at the heart of the sustainability question. Some of the biggest concerns are the impacts to climate change, water scarcity and quality, air pollution, biodiversity, and soil quality. The arrows point in the other direction as well – our food systems are vulnerable to environmental changes that can be observed worldwide today. You don’t need to look further than the recent droughts in California to see how extreme weather can significantly disrupt agricultural output.grass_smokestack

Modern diets also threaten our ability to sustain ourselves – it’s been estimated that more than 14% of the burden of chronic disease in the US is diet-related, which is not unusual among high-income countries, and this does not count the effects of diet mediated by obesity, hypertension, and high levels of blood cholesterol and glucose. Alongside this overconsumption and waste, close to 900 million worldwide go undernourished. This disconnect is alarming.

You look at a lot of “big picture” topics including nutrition, human health, environmental degradation, occupational health, climate change and sustainability. Based on your research into these areas, what are the most important changes we should make when it comes to food decisions – on both a personal and global level? Are there certain foods we should eat more of or avoid, based on the environmental implications?

If you look at the environmental impacts of individual foods, there are some recurring themes. One is the role that livestock plays in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, environmental damage, water footprints, and land use changes. In fact, a 2013 UN report estimated that globally, the livestock sector is responsible for 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions. By their calculation, this is comparable to the emissions from cars, trucks, buses, and other transport combined. If you couple these concerns with the evidence that a plant-rich and meat-lean diet is best for health, you can logically conclude that a reduction in beef consumption makes sense for you and the planet.

Read Part 2 of the interview →