What is sustainable food? There is no easy answer, but researchers emphasise that the focus should be on the big picture, with an eye on the latest research and responsibility for the environment.

Sustainable food evokes many different ideas. Many of us would like to know how we could enjoy our food in a healthy, environmentally friendly way. Should we consider the environmental impact of each bite we take? Researchers look at the bigger picture.

 “Comparing individual foods is not particularly productive. It’s much more interesting in terms of sustainability, health and the environment to look at an individual’s full diet,” says Mikael Fogelholm, professor of nutrition science.

The modern consumer wants food that is both healthy and environmentally friendly. Consumer choices can also be swayed by national nutrition recommendations. According to the Finnish nutrition recommendations, updated in 2014, people should eat no more than half a kilo of processed and red meat per week. According to calculations by the Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners, a typical Finn exceeds this recommendation only by the equivalent of a half meatball. This means that in terms of nutrition recommendations, Finnish meat eaters are fine – or are they?

 “From a health perspective, eating red meat in particular represents poor health. This is a relatively new research finding, even though the causal relations have not been unambiguously proven. A sustainable diet should also be healthy,” states Fogelholm.

However, recommendations and real diets are not the same thing. The University of Helsinki’s nutrition scientists, biostatisticians from the University of Tampere, and the S Group are initiating a joint research project to monitor the grocery choices of 10,000 consumers based on customer loyalty card data.

 “We intend to link anonymous purchase data to the health effects of the food. Our goal is to create a solution in which a consumer can go online and find a personalised nutrition profile. At the same time, we would like to link the data to the environmental impact of the food, so that consumers can also receive information on the sustainability of their choices,” says Fogelholm.

AM I protecting the environment on my plate?

Juha Helenius, professor of agroecology, wants to examine sustainable diets comprehensively, considering nutritional value, food safety, food security, cultural and ethical issues as well as ecological sustainability. 

The environmental impact of food production could be comprehensively considered already in the early stages of production. Together with producers, Helenius has developed a model for a local food system, the Palopuro Agroecological Symbiosis, which is nutrient and energy independent. The goal on the Palopuro farm is to make food production and processing as transparent and understandable for consumers as possible.

In terms of the environment, the biggest diet question is eating meat. Increasing vegetable intake is mentioned in the nutrition recommendations, and the goal is to have more alternative protein sources, such as fish, broad beans, peas and other legumes, in the Finnish diet. It’s possible that new or amended nutrition recommendations will be issued to Finns later this year, as the term of the National Nutrition Council, which drafted the current recommendations, will end in October 2017.

 “The Western diet includes so many animal-derived products, that their amount could be roughly cut in half for health reasons alone. This would free up the resources of global food production to serve the third world,” states Helenius.

If you do want to eat meat, the healthier option according to nutrition recommendations is low-fat poultry, which currently represents approximately 21% of Finnish meat intake. But there’s a downside: WWF Finland’s responsible meat guide points out that broiler chickens are commonly fed with soy which may not be sustainably produced. For this reason, WWF recommends having a limited intake of broiler meat, and choosing organically grown meat whenever possible.

 “A vegan diet is always an ecological choice! A traditional Mediterranean diet, with little meat and a great deal of vegetables, is the healthiest option and meets environmental requirements. When we look at all available studies, cutting meat intake reduces our carbon footprint, as the form of food production with the biggest environmental impact is farming cattle for meat,” says Mikael Fogelholm.

However, vegetarian food does not automatically mean a small carbon footprint, as the carbon impact of vegetables increases if they are grown or farmed in greenhouses. Some produce features a carbon stamp which tells consumers how much greenhouse gas has been generated throughout the lifecycle of the product.  According to a Finnish study, the impact of food on the climate is significant. A single meal can represent more than 10% of an individual’s daily average climate impact.

A vegan diet is always an ecological choice!

Better choices

Minna Kotkamaa’s 2016 Master’s thesis, Nutritional quality and climate effect of food served in staff restaurants, compared the climate impact and nutritional profile of 20 different meals. The goal was to find a meal that had the best possible nutritional quality and the lowest climate impact, by replacing ingredients in the dish as necessary.

The lowest grade in terms of both nutrition and climate were given to a macaroni casserole with ground meat and a beef wok. Unexpectedly, the dish with the biggest carbon footprint was the mozzarella salad, which nevertheless had the best nutritional value in the study. Kotkamaa modified the meals to optimise them. The beef in the wok was replaced with shrimp, which cut its climate impact by a quarter.  The ground meat in the macaroni casserole was replaced with soybean meal, dropping its climate impact to less than half of the original, while more than quintupling its nutritional value. The original mozzarella salad used semi-dried tomatoes, and the carbon footprint could be significantly reduced by using fresh ones. In addition, the lettuce in the salad was switched from greenhouse-grown to field-grown lettuce. These amendments cut the climate impact of the dish to less than half, and while it also reduced its nutritional value, the difference was not significant.  

In terms of high nutritional value and small carbon footprint, the best choices in Kotkamaa’s study included both vegan dishes and ones with animal products: anchovy herring with potatoes, chickpea patties with beet hummus and mashed root vegetables, chickpea casserole with potatoes, bean stew with tomato, ham-potato casserole, and carrot pancakes with lingonberries. According to Kotkamaa, the climate impact of food can be significantly reduced by eating produce that is in season.  

Sustainable meat issues

More meat was produced in Finland in 2016 than ever before. According to the report by the Natural Resources Institute Finland, this development was boosted by the 7% increase in poultry meat production from the previous year.

Professor Maria Fredriksson-Ahomaa, who studies meat safety, considers a sustainable diet to be one that features ecological choices and ethically produced food which is as safe and healthy as possible.

 “This is only an option in the developed world. Locally produced food is usually sustainable,” says Fredriksson-Ahomaa.

Professor Fredriksson-Ahomaa’s current research projects have to do with farm-to-table production of Finnish pork and poultry. In her studies, she tries to follow the One Health model, which recognises that the health of people, animals and the environment are interconnected.

Six in ten infectious diseases originate in animals.

 “To get safe and high-quality food, we have to focus on its primary production,” emphasises Fredriksson-Ahomaa.

The conditions in which the animals are kept, clean food and water, animal health and medication are central factors for sustainability. Antibiotics should only be used to treat sick animals when prescribed by a veterinarian, and not just in case. In addition, responsibility programmes initiated within the agricultural industry have a major impact on animal health and welfare.  Pesticides in plants make their way into animals through their feed, so cutting pesticides also benefits people who eat meat. According to the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira, remnants from plant pesticides are the second most common reason for rejecting a food product originating outside the EU.

Globally, six out of ten infectious diseases that affect humans, and up to three in four new diseases, originate in animals.

 “Finland currently has few infectious diseases that spread to humans through production animals and food,” explains Fredriksson-Ahomaa.

Pathogens that can compromise the safety of animal-derived products include intestinal bacteria such as Campylobacter, salmonella, Yersinia bacteria and EHEC.  According to the latest report by the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira, such infections are rare in Finland. For example, there were two reported epdemics of salmonella in Finland and 13 people contracted salmonella in 2013. The low prevalence of salmonella in Finland is partially thanks to the Finnish Salmonella Control Programme, which covers cattle, pigs and poultry as well as their meat and eggs. It should be pointed out that not all salmonella cases are reported, and the actual number of cases is thought to be ten, a hundred or even a thousand times more than the reported number.

meat’s journey onto your plate

Veterinarians are doing a great deal of important but invisible work in meat production.  A veterinarian must inspect all animals that are brought to a slaughterhouse and are responsible for the health of the animals. The veterinarians also ensure that animal protection legislation is followed when animals are handled during slaughter and stunning. In addition, the veterinarian makes sure that the slaughtering is conducted as hygienically as possible. And finally, the veterinarian monitors the safety and quality of the meat. It is possible to tell if raw meat is of poor quality just by looking at it.

 “If the animal is very stressed before slaughter, the meat becomes pale and watery, or, if the stress is long term, dark and dry,” describes Professor Fredriksson-Ahomaa.

Could we get back to the way things were 50 years ago, when a cowshed could house a handful of cows and the yard had a couple of pigs happily rolling around in the mud? Fredriksson-Ahomaa believes that in the future, more consumers will demand animal-derived products that come from animals which can go outside. However, this increases the risk of disease, as the production animals could be in contact with wild animals, and there should be ways of mitigating this risk. Fredriksson-Ahomaa’s new research projects survey the risks of microbes transmitted from wild animals to outdoor production animals.

Butterfly effect

As the Earth has limited, unequally distributed resources, environmental concerns must form the basis of sustainable food production to ensure enough food for everyone. At the moment, 40% of the planet’s dry land has been cultivated for agriculture. In addition to land, agriculture requires clean water as well as phosphorus and other plant nutrients which are important for enriching the soil. 

 “We cannot ignore the environmental effects of food production – the climate impact, the burden on the waterways and the threat to biodiversity. We are trying to find sustainable solutions for these questions in our ongoing multidisciplinary research projects. Sustainability to should continue from one generation to the next so that future generations will also be able to produce their food,” states Helenius.

However a small actor on the global arena, we must be responsible.

According to Fogelholm, meat consumption in China and India is increasing, even though China aims at halving its meat consumption by 2030.

 “I’ve never understood the mode of thinking that we Finns can do whatever we want in terms of the Earth, because we’re such a small nation. To me, this is immoral. We must be ready to make changes to become more sustainable, no matter what our size on the global arena,” Fogelholm states.

Mikael Fogelholm, professor of nutritional science:  Publications, projects, activities, awards., Twitter: @MikaelFogelholm 
Juha Helenius, professor of agroecology:  Publications, projects, activities, awards.. Twitter: @helenius_juha
Maria Fredriksson-Ahomaa, professor of food hygiene:  Publications, projects, activities, awards.