COP21 in Paris: Food for Thoughts

Given the importance of the double-objective of avoiding climate change and improving global health, bold targets to achieve sustainable healthy eating patterns should be a key focus in the climate negotiations.
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Adult hands holding kid hands with red apple on top on green grass background.
Adult hands holding kid hands with red apple on top on green grass background.

As Paris mourns its recent tragedy, it also looks to the future, hosting the 2015 United Nations Climate Conference -- COP21 -- starting next week. At this meeting, every nation will hopefully commit to reducing its emissions, and together, take a significant step towards determining a sustainable future for all.

Despite much hope and optimism prior to the conference, the expectations are far more realistic than prior to Copenhagen's COP15 in 2009. With the current pledges on the table estimated to take us only half way to meet the 2 degree target, governments will need to ramp up their efforts.

And a simple quote from my childhood hero -- "everything is connected" -- could help them on their way.

Growing up in the 80s, when the other girls in my class dreamed of being Madonna, I wanted to be like Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian Prime Minister at that time. Trained as a physician, she later became Director General of the World Health Organization and the world's first climate doctor, recognizing the intricate relationships between health and the environment. Under her leadership, the World Commission on Environment and Development, first coined the concept of Sustainable Development.

Almost 30 years later, her mantra that "everything is connected" still resonates and should guide the world leaders when they gather in Paris.

Over the last decades, the inter-related challenges of public health, climate and environmental sustainability have gained increasing focus. In 2009, The Lancet declared climate change to be the greatest threat to global health in the 21st Century. Air pollution alone harms public health and causes 7 million premature deaths annually. Droughts and extreme weather contribute to undernutrition, food insecurity and could undo the considerable gains made on eradicating poverty.

But interrelationships produce good news, too. Earlier this year, the second Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change concluded a more optimistic message: that the transition to a low carbon society represents our generation's greatest opportunity to improve global health. This should motivate policy makers to make bold commitments at COP21.

Yet so far, in our efforts to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets, international policy has focused almost exclusively on the energy sector. Food has been almost left out of the climate equation even though it exhibits not only the greatest and fastest mitigation potential but also provides the most achievable health co-benefits.

Today's global food system accounts for 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Although we produce enough calories for the current global population, the food is not equitably distributed or of sufficient quality. Almost 800 million still goes hungry, and an estimated 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. On top of this come those who get too much, with another 2 billion being overweight or obese. As if this wasn't enough, the food system is also hugely inefficient -- up to a third of all food produced is lost or wasted along the road from farm to fork.

If we are to make meaningful inroads on climate change, eradicating malnutrition and tackling the epidemic of obesity-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and type-2 diabetes, we must change not only the way we produce our food, but what's on the world´s menus.

The good news is that an increasing body of scientific evidence shows that healthy diets tend to be more sustainable, and vice versa. A shift to healthier diets and more climate-smart, sustainable food production is key to tackling our greatest public health challenges as well as securing a livable future for humanity.

Given the importance of the double-objective of avoiding climate change and improving global health, bold targets to achieve sustainable healthy eating patterns should be a key focus in the climate negotiations.

However, although the UN has declared food security as one of the main objectives of the climate negotiations, the food sector has so far escaped as a target for radically cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Neither is food on the agenda for COP21, despite the fact that many of the solutions are literally right in front of delegates -- on their dinner-plates!

We have chefs ready to make and serve healthy, sustainable and palatable solutions. But we need leaders to serve up the ambitions.

The demand for better healthier and more sustainable food is already there. And it is growing. A food revolution is on its way. And Paris could be the appropriate place for kicking off such a revolution. The French Revolution was started by women storming the streets of Paris to protest against rising bread prices. They fought for their kids. Today, a growing group of urban parents, in France and abroad, are increasingly recognizing the importance of good, healthy and sustainable food.

This growing group of increasingly affluent and conscious consumers are eating less meat, fewer ultra-processed foods and feed more fruits and vegetables to their children. Indeed, the top 3 consumer trends for 2016 are real, clean and simple foods with less artificial additives, "free from" products -- and less meat. It's already big business for companies like Chipotle, Unilever and many others.

French women became world famous with the book "French Women Don´t Get Fat". They are known for enjoying themselves at the street cafe with good food and good wine -- even indulging in cake! They know the key is everything in moderation. Or as the American journalist Michael Pollan puts it elegantly; "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much."

The major marches planned to coincide with the COP21 have been cancelled for security reasons. We all hope for peaceful conditions inside as well as outside the Conference. I also hope for a much broader climate engagement, with people from all spheres playing their part. From the doctor's office, from the field, the kitchen, the café table -- we can all make a difference. Because remember: everything is connected.

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