Human health needs a healthy planet

26 February 2018
Workshop on sustainable and ethical food systems
Last week, the University of Sydney held its first workshop with priority partners on planetary health with representatives from the University of Edinburgh and University of California, Davis.

With a focus on sustainable and ethical food systems, the workshop was led by the inaugural Professor of Planetary Health Tony Capon and Professor Robyn Alders from the Faculty of Science.

"Planetary health is about safeguarding the health and wellbeing of current and future generations through good stewardship of earth's natural systems and by rethinking the way we feed, move, house, power and care for our world," Professor Capon said.

Composting toilets, the impact may have on our food systems and how we make our diets more sustainable were just some of the ideas discussed at the workshop.

The three universities agreed to concentrate their efforts around three major themes:

The role of food in human health

It is important to understand the role of food in human health. Our farmers can grow the best medicine, if you get your diet right with fresh and healthy food you can help to prevent and manage major diseases like diabetes and obesity.

"Over the years the nutritional quality and taste of our produce has declined, the nutritional profile is significantly different to what it used to be. Your big plump tomatoes, many of which are now grown using hydroponics, are mostly water and the nutrient profile has been diluted. We need to change this view of food as being about price per unit weight or volume and, rather value its nutritional content," Professor Alders said.

"There is a disconnect between food producers and consumers of food. Many people no longer have an understanding of where food comes from and we need to think about how we can reconnect producers of food with consumers of food. One example in cities is the renaissance of farmers markets but that's only reaching a small part of the population, how do we scale that up further?" Professor Capon said.

A better understanding of sustainable diets

Sustainable diets will be very different depending on where you live. For many in high-income countries it will mean consuming less meat, but for those in low-income countries the question is not about less meat, it is about being able to eat an optimal quantity of nutrient-rich, animal-source food that can entirely transform the quality of cereal-based diets.

"If your interest is sustainability, thinking about how you put your diet together will lead to a better outcome for animal and planetary health. As omnivores, we need to eat as efficiently as possible, this will have flow on benefits for all animal and plant life," Professor Alders said.

Human waste should not be wasted

Humans absorb a relatively small amount of nutrients from the food they consume which means human waste contains many valuable nutrients. If we use alternate sanitation techniques, the nutrients in our urine and faeces could be used to fertilise soil, in a similar way to the current use of animal waste as a fertiliser.

"We need to change the story and challenge people to question received wisdom. The current dominant approach is to use the flush toilet and move the human waste away for treatment so that we are safe from it. We need to re-think our relationship with those valuable nutrients," Professor Capon said.

Workshop participants agreed to use these themes for future partnerships in research projects, teaching and student mobility programs.

When asked about her greatest concerns about our current food systems, Professor Alders said it was the failure of Australians to understand just how precarious household food security is in our country.

"Between 5 to 8 percent of people across Australia do not have reliable access to food. In rural communities, up to 10 percent of people have said they have had periods where they have not been able to provide food for their families. We know there is a problem internationally, but my greatest concern is getting people to understand the problem where we live. People are going hungry in Australia and this has a knock on effect in our communities and future generations," Professor Alders said.

"Extreme weather events and having to deal with variable weather make it extremely hard for farmers to plan, implement and harvest. We need substantially more support for agricultural research and development to help us use our scarce water and nutrient resources as efficiently as possible.

"But students at the University give me hope. They are coming in from many different walks of life and bring with them new perspectives on sustainable agriculture and social justice."

Sitou Sally

Higher degree research student

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