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Towards healthy and environmentally sustainable diets for European consumers

On 8 January, Elly Mertens successfully defended her thesis ‘Towards healthy and environmentally sustainable diets for European consumers’ at Wageningen University. Her thesis is a product of the TiFN project ‘SHARP-Basic’, where SHARP stands for Sustainable, Healthy, Affordable, Reliable and Preferable diets.

A symposium prior to the defence was organised under the same name as the thesis. The symposium, attended by 75 guests, was opened by Prof Pieter van ’t Veer (Elly’s promotor at Wageningen University & Research) in which he highlighted the main aspects of more sustainable nutrition and how a model such as SHARP may provide answers to this. The various indicators for sustainability, such as the environment, health, fair prices and animal welfare, are not necessarily all pointing in the same direction when it comes to different foodstuffs. The study of these ‘trade-offs’ will enable us to make clearer choices. The following four speakers each dealt with a ‘challenge’ of their own: Corné van Dooren (Voedingscentrum) talked about the challenges of a healthy diet; Maartje Poelman (Wageningen University & Research) examined the challenges confronting consumers; Wouter-Jan Schouten (TiFN) focused on the challenges faced by the production chain; and Monica Zurek (Oxford University) zeroed in on the challenges of the food system.

In terms of the health challenge, four themes took centre stage: overconsumption; the win-win of traditional diets in the Netherlands for environment and health; the nutrient density of animal versus vegetable-based products; and the future of dietary guidelines (Van Dooren). The way in which consumers assess the different aspects of what they shop for is a complex one, not only in terms of experience and expertise: availability, price, social values and automatic pilot each have a key role to play in this (Poelman). In particular, the role of the dietary environment: what’s on offer in terms of healthy or unhealthy food plays a big part in how we act as consumers. Ultimately, it’s consumers who decide on what ends up on their plates, but it’s food production chains that make this available. The sustainability of ingredients, regenerative farming and the use of new technologies provide us with opportunities for the future (Schouten). Where once maximum efficiency held sway as the model for success, the challenge now is to get this production within the planetary boundaries per hectare. A number of TiFN projects are linked to these facets: Sustainable Ingredients, Regenerative Farming and Technology 4 Ecology. To conclude in summary, Monika Zurek stressed the importance of system-based thinking to bring about solutions. This starts by identifying the different parties in the food system and bringing them all together in order to arrive at clear-cut agreements. Analysis of the possibilities, the implications of innovations and monitoring play a crucial part in this.

This symposium succeeded in throwing the spotlight on the different points of view which ultimately will have to be brought together in the ‘chain thinking’. Whilst much has been done publicly, privately, research-wise and politically, the challenge is still too great not to work together until diets and food production chains really are fully SHARP.

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