Greening our prescriptions by Dr Rosemary Stanton

This article is authored by Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM, member of DEA Scientific Advisory Committee, nutritionist and Visiting Fellow in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of New South Wales.   It highlights environmental factors which can help motivate our patients to eat healthily.

The article appeared in Medical Observer in the DEA column The link is here.

It can be difficult to convince many people need to change their eating and exercise habits.. Could a new perspective on food provide a more effective motive?

The diet that is better for the environment, with fewer processed packaged foods, less animal fat and more plant-based foods could also improve health and reduce risk of many health problems.

CSIRO’s social researchers (1) find people are interested in climate change and understand the urgency to address it. A message to ‘save the planet’ and reduce the carbon footprint associated with excessive consumption can produce a ‘feel-good’ positive response whereas most people experience a negative response when told they should make changes for health.

The Public Health Association of Australia has addressed health and sustainability with their booklet, A Future for Food (2) and Sweden has developed guidelines for environmentally friendly food choices (3).

Some practical messages to address health and climate change include:

Buy less and minimise both waste and waist
Australians throw away $5.2 billion worth of food each year - $616 per household (4). Food wastes release methane and each kilogram added to landfill generates the equivalent of a kilogram of CO2 (5). We also ‘waist’ excess food.
Advice: Buy less. Avoid impulse purchases and ‘two-for-one’ deals. Plan meals based on what you have on hand. Freeze leftovers. Compost food waste. Support community recycling and waste collections.

Packaging
Food and beverage packaging materials use energy and water resources for their production and add to litter and greenhouse gases. Many pre-packaged foods also have little – or even negative - nutritional value.
Advice: Drink tap water and use refillable bottles. Favour fresh foods with minimal packaging. Avoid packaged take-away foods.

Balance animal and plant products

Meat provides nutrients, but production of animals, especially cattle and sheep fed grain or fertilised pasture, creates a high carbon footprint. Methane burped by ruminant animals has over 20 times the greenhouse potency of carbon dioxide. Production of animal protein uses 11 times as much fuel as an equivalent quantity of plant protein (6)

It is unrealistic and unnecessary for environmental reasons to recommend a vegetarian diet. Animal urine is a valuable source of phosphorus for soils and animal waste can substitute for chemical fertilisers. However, halving average meat consumption would cut the average Australian's greenhouse gas emissions by almost 25%. Even cutting out one beef meal a week can save 300kg of greenhouse pollution/year (7).

Advice: Reduce meat consumption, favour chicken, rabbit, pork, kangaroo and sheep that graze on land unsuitable for crops. Fill the dinner plate with vegetables and add a small amount of meat or use nuts or legumes for concentrated protein.

Use fresh local foods in season
The concept of ‘food miles’ is valid for fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes grown naturally in season require 2 MJ of energy/kg, those in greenhouses require 55 MJ/kg (8).

Advice: Use local foods in season. Start a home garden. Support community gardens and school kitchen gardens. Children who grow vegetables are more likely to eat them (9. 10).

Conclusion

The discussion on food and climate change will intensify in the near future. Our advice can have a dual benefit, enabling and empowering patients to make choices that benefit the environment and their health.

1. Energy transformed flagship report, CSIRO, March 2009 available at http://www.csiro.au/news/newsletters/Energy/0903_energy/htm/story04.htm (Accessed 21/7/2009).
2. Public Health Association of Australia. 2009. A Future for Food. available at www.phaa.net.au  (Accessed 21/7/2009).
3. Livsmedels verket, Environmentally effective food choices. Proposal notified to the EU 15th May 2009. Available at http://www.euractiv.com/en/cap/sweden-promotes-climate-friendly-food-choices/article-183349 (Accessed 21/7/2009).
4. Hamilton C, Denniss R, Baker D. Wasteful Consumption in Australia. The Australia Institute. Discussion Paper 77, March 2005.
5. Food, garden, packaging and materials. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts, Australian Government, available at http://www.environment.gov.au/settlements/gwci/food.html (Accessed 22/7/2009).
6. Pimental D, Pimental M. Sustainability of meat and plant-based diets and the environment, AJCN. 2003: 78 (3) 660-663S   
7. Australian Conservation Foundation Eco Calculator, available at http://www.acfonline.org.au/custom_greenhome/calculator.asp?section_id=86 (Accessed 23/7/09)
8. C Gysi and A Reist, Hors-sol Kulturen - eine ökologische Bilanz, Landwirtschaft Schweiz, 1990 (vol 3) 8: 447-59. (Quoted in Lenzen M. Individual Responsibility and Climate Change, presented at the Environmental Justice Conference, University of Melbourne, October 1997, available at http://www.isa.org.usyd.edu.au/publications/documents/Greenhouse_Responsibility.pdf (Accessed 23/7/09)
9. Nanney MS, Johnson S, Elliott M, Haire-Joshu D. Frequency of eating homegrown produce is associated with higher intake among parents and their preschool-aged children in rural Missouri. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007 Apr;107(4):577-84.
10. Lautenschlager L, Smith C. Understanding gardening and dietary habits among youth garden program participants using the Theory of Planned Behavior. Appetite. 2007 Jul;49(1):122-30.