18 February 2011

Food: a hot conference topic

How should the world’s  poorest people feed themselves? And what should the West do to reduce ill-health associated with food? The implications of these questions were discussed on the opening day of the Forum for Environmental Research’s 2011 Conference on Food.

It is a cruel paradox that today, a billion people are overfed while another billion are undernourished. Both these gigantic problems are bound up with both environmental and health issues — and, of course, with the attitude we should take towards income-distribution policy and living standards for future generations.

‘There have never been as many fat people as there are today. This applies not only to Sweden and the USA. The problem of overweight and obesity is big in, for example, many Arab countries as well.’

The speaker is Stephan Rössner, Professor of Health-Related Behavioural Science at Karolinska Institutet. Simultaneously, he shows a photograph of a shop in Jordan displaying clothes in XXXXXL sizes.
Costs of obesity and overweight
The costs to society of excess body weight are enormous. They do not result solely from the resulting illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer.

‘One common effect of being overweight is urinary incontinence. The costs of incontinence care to Swedish society are more than SEK 7 billion a year!’

According to Rössner, overweight and obesity have many causes.
‘While we have maximum access to food and confectionery round the clock, we exercise less and less. This applies not least to our everyday movements, like walking to a fixed telephone to answer when it rings.’

Other aspects are that portion sizes are increasing and that the top four everyday dishes in Sweden are Falun sausage, Bolognese sauce, pizza and pasta.
Eating it all up or eating until satisfied
But why do we consume food we know is bad for us? According to Martin Ingvar, Professor of Integrative Medicine at Karolinska Institutet, the problems of our food culture are all about information.

‘Our brains are not constructed to understand and follow present-day dietary recommendations and attitudes towards obesity. We must learn to combat extreme fluctuations in blood-sugar levels, and to understand the workings of dopamine, reward systems and autonomic options in the brain. Only when we can start reprogramming our reward systems can we also start eating right, exercising more and, above all, eating in moderation.’

‘The average American stops eating when the food on the plate is finished — or when the TV programme is over. A corresponding French person, on the other hand, stops eating when he or she has had enough. That’s why the French also have the least problems with obesity,’ Ingvar relates.
Distorted ideas
Our ideas about food are also, of course, what determine what we ingest. At the conference Louise Ungerth, who has a degree in agriculture and is head of consumer and environmental affairs at the Stockholm Consumer Cooperative Society, showed that many of us have entirely incorrect notions about food.

‘By 2050 there will be more than nine billion of us on Earth. Food must suffice for all. There are great chances of this being feasible if we get to grips with the unnecessary wastage of food, which is currently estimated at 30—40% of global food production, at least.’

In a survey she had conducted, the respondents were asked to comment on common perceptions of food in Sweden. One question was: ‘Apple purée is added to lingonberry jam to keep costs down: true or false?’ More than 70% of the respondents replied that it was true. During the conference, the participants were also asked to guess about green and red labels (translator’s note: green labels indicate that food is good for health, while red ones warn of excessive salt, sugar and/or fat).

‘The statement about lingonberry jam is false. But it’s not that easy to know, since it used to be true. Fifteen years ago apple purée was added, but now the manufacturers have long since stopped adding it.’

Other assertions she mentioned were that transfats are common in processed foods, that loads on the environment arise mainly in the course of transport, and that fructose (fruit sugar) is more nutritious than ordinary white sugar. All these statements turned out to be false.

‘One question that proved to be difficult to answer was whether a portion of rice has twice as much impact on the climate as a portion of potatoes. This statement is true. By changing out ideas about food, we can also reduce food wastage,’ Louise Ungerth pointed out.
Reuse of fertilisers
Our consumption of foods is obviously connected with production, and a rise results in a range of different loads on the environment. This fact was cited by Christel Cederberg of the Swedish Institute of Food and Biotechnology (SIK), who is carrying out research on the environmental and resource impact of food production. One aspect she had investigated is animal production.

‘Up to the urbanisation around the year 1900, all farms had circulating fertiliser: those who raised animals also cultivated the feed for the animals and, by the same token, used their manure. Today, more and more farms have broken this circulation, and it causes major problems,’ she related.
Shortage of phosphorus
The industrialised animal production of the present day usually takes place far away from the land where the feed is grown. Nitrogen and phosphorus, in the form of commercial fertiliser, must constantly be added in the course of feed production. In order for farming to become efficient, feed production and animal husbandry must be connected, and we need to find ways of restoring and recirculating plant nutrients.

‘The problem is mainly a matter of single-stomached animals like pigs and chicken, but it’s getting really huge. One result of the broken natural cycle in agriculture is that phosphorus is scarce. This will have major consequences for our future food production,’ Cederberg continued.

Her reply to a question from the moderator, Johan Kuylenstierna of the Stockholm Environment Institute, about what she herself thinks of the rise in meat production, was prompt and brief.

‘We’ve got to reduce meat consumption in the West.’

Global perspective
Just as with the question about balance in the world, the first day of the conference opened with the subject of rich and poor, well-fed and hungry. Appearing on stage was Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health at the Department of Public Health Sciences, Karolinska Institutet. Rosling owes his high public profile partly to his many numerical examples concerning, for example, population growth, in which he has demolished the myth that most families in poor areas have many children.

‘In both Bangladesh and Indonesia, women today bear just over two children each, on average, despite their poverty and terrible living conditions.’

But although most countries today are, in fact, already down to the two-child family average, there will be at least nine billion people on Earth by 2050.

‘We don’t have any problem feeding billions of people. The problem is to measure the last billion — the poorest people on Earth. And that’s a problem, since poverty is the foremost cause of ill-health.’
Children hit hardest
The repercussions of poverty include malnutrition, diarrhoea and infectious diseases. Children are hit hardest. In Hans Rosling’s view, poverty is the great challenge of the future.

‘We’ve got to help them, and our best way of doing that is to ensure that they get electricity. So we should give them the technology they need, irrespective of whether it’s DDT, nuclear power stations or new dams. Yes, sure, these are sensitive topics to discuss; but now is the time to talk about them.’

For this reason, environmental restrictions in these regions are also an obstacle to combating poverty.

‘We can start by reforming our income-distribution policy and letting all commercial fertilisers go to Africa.’

We can no longer believe that the Chinese do not plan to acquire as many washing-machines and cars as we have. That kind of thinking is racist, according to Rosling.

He also disapproves of the labelling of Swedish food in supermarket display units.

‘I think it’s horrid putting Swedish flags on food. It’s better to buy food from countries with the lowest GDP — peas from Kenya, for example.’
Reliable planning
Some agreement came from Professor Johan Rockström, head of the Mistra-funded Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.
‘We’re working to survey the environmental state of the globe, and that means we’ll be able to deduce various consequences, such as the effects of having nine billion people to feed.’

He related that to eradicate hunger, food production would have to increase by 70%, and points that we already know that agriculture is even today one of the biggest users of water and electricity.

‘How are we going to solve this equation? A further expansion of farmland will affect our systems in such a way as to push them irrevocably past the tipping point.’

But there are prescriptions to mitigate the damage. To avoid disastrous environmental changes, humankind must remain within defined limits for nine biophysical planetary processes. These are results that the Stockholm Resilience Centre has already presented in the journal Nature. This calls, for example, for analyses of land and water use.

‘That way, we can devise a reliable game plan.’

But what can the farm sector do, then? Johan Rockström identified six characteristics of sustainable agriculture, including everything from more efficient use of rainwater, instead of traditional irrigation, to modified ways of ploughing the soil.
Home comforts in China
Attention at the conference then turned to the area raised by Mistra’s Chief Executive, Lars-Erik Liljelund, during his introduction.

‘Sweden’s strength is knowledge. It can be a matter of using biological pesticides on crops instead of chemical ones, but also of a systematic approach of the kind that the Stockholm Resilience Centre stands for. When Chinese families too want home comforts, requirements increase,’ Liljelund said.

The conference, which was held jointly by the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas), Mistra and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, continued on the Thursday with topics including resistance to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), for better and for worse, and modern food research. On both days of the conference, a range of seminars and workshops were held.


The Forum for Environmental Research is a conference for dialogue among researchers, government agencies, municipalities, politicians, businesses and interest organisations. The conference is held annually, on a variety of themes. The arrangers are organisations that fund environmental research: the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas), Mistra and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. In 2010 the theme was ‘The City´.

This year´s conference documentation and programme may be found at the Forum for Environmental Research´s website (in Swedish).

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