Food is at the centre of Planetary Health – and the medical community needs to act upon it

Guest article by Dr. med. Lisa Pörtner, German Alliance for Climate Change and Health (KLUG)

Nutrition has long been on the sidelines of medical education and practice. Rather than acknowledging the importance of dietary choices and their effects on human health, our medical systems are disease-focused, relying heavily on pharmacological treatments and technical innovations. In Germany, medical expenditures amount to more than 400 million € a year, only a fraction of which are spent on preventive measures. This has dire consequences not only for human health, but also for our environment.

The power of nutrition in preventing and healing disease is ignored by medical practitioners and health policy advisers alike, leading to rising numbers of obesity in children and adults, and a growing burden of non-communicable diseases. This leads to human suffering and shortened life expectancy: In Europe, 25 % of premature deaths are attributable to dietary factors.

Our food systems endanger Planetary Health

While the health aspects of dietary choices have so far failed to incentivize substantial changes to our food systems, a growing threat to human health now calls for renewed attention to the topic: the looming Planetary Health crisis. Human exploitation of our natural systems during the last decades has lead to accelerating climate change, a dramatic loss in biodiversity and the continuous pollution of air and water systems alike. Adverse health effects of these changes are already visible – 7 million lives a year are lost because of air pollution, the risk of detrimental heat exposure has increased considerably over the last decades and pandemics and reduced ecosystem services (like fish catch and crop harvests) are early signs of the devastating effects of the destruction of healthy ecosystems.

Food is at the centre of many of these issues, agriculture contributing around 30 % of human greenhouse gas emissions and being the leading cause for the destruction of natural forests and wetlands. The excessive consumption of animal products is the main driver behind these changes, also accelerating species extinctions and the disruption of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, with detrimental effects on soils, rivers and oceans. In addition, 30 % of food produced worldwide is wasted, adding substantially to the environmental burden of the food system.


A healthy future is at stake – it´s time to act

Failing to act on these issues precludes achieving global environmental goals (e.g. the Paris Agreement) as well as most of the Sustainable Development Goals – including SDG 3 on “Good Health and well-being”. Advocating a food system transformation towards plant-based diets in order to safeguard the health of current and future generations should therefore be at the heart of our responsibility as healthcare providers. We need to incorporate food and its manifold impacts in our daily practice, implement the knowledge in healthcare and educational institutions and become engaged on a political level in order to communicate what is at stake. After all, a food system transformation is one of the biggest levers to achieve a just, healthy and equitable future for all.

Disclaimer: the opinions – including possible policy recommendations – expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EPHA. The mere appearance of the articles on the EPHA website does not mean an endorsement by EPHA. 

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