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Is it Possible to Improve Nutritional Health and the Environment in One Bite?

In ‘Recipe for Survival: What You Can do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life,’ published in January 2022, UCLA Fielding School professor Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes provides “recipes” for improving personal and planetary health

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Q. What inspired you to write this book? At what scale can one person’s dietary decisions really help to combat global climate change?

A. The scientific community has unequivocally identified the number one cause of climate change — us — and has been monitoring its trajectory and offering solutions to protect Earth from further harm for several decades. Unfortunately, very few, if any of these solutions have been related to dietary choices, which misses out on a large part of the environmental picture. That is what inspired me to write this book – my unique perspective, and its focus on the rarely discussed aspects of climate change – namely how our own personal behaviors and actions – especially from diet – can affect the trajectory of climate change and the recovery of Earth’s systems.

Too many of us, government leaders included, ignore the signs and symptoms that are right before our eyes. If this were a patient, we would be horrified if a clinician ignored their bodily injuries, wouldn’t we? So yes, individual actions matter, and they matter even more when we work together.

Q. What is the connection between global actions to combat climate change and diet/nutrition?

A. The recent Conference of the Parties 26 (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland addressed the concept of ‘net-zero emissions by 2050’ and ‘ending deforestation by 2030’ – two goals that could keep global warming below 2C and perhaps even below 1.5C. However, very few direct actions for attaining these goals were provided.

COP26 did not include discussions on emissions from animal agriculture or the expected increase in these emissions due to the projected larger population wanting to eat more animal foods in the future. This omission is shocking when one considers that agriculture produces at least one-quarter and possibly more of the world’s total emissions. I mean: Would a doctor ignore one-quarter of a patient?

Q. Through the lens of nutrition and climate change, how might an increase in the global human population contribute to additional food insecurity? If so, what is a solution?

A. Today there are 7.9 billion people on Earth. By 2050, there may be 9.7 billion. By 2050, more people will live in cities, earning more money, and eating more meat, dairy, and processed foods. Although population may increase by 23%, it is projected that we will need to produce 60% more food. Unfortunately, Earth does not have 60% more land available to produce these extra foods at the levels we currently eat them and are expected to eat them, and razing more rainforest and other untouched habitats to produce those foods will do far more damage to Earth’s systems than we see even today. The solution is to eat differently and to think about food and nutrition differently – which, interestingly enough, actually means eating healthier, better, and in a more environmentally friendly way!

Q. So following up on that, these are daunting challenges and paint a picture of a grim future – especially coupled with a global pandemic. What can be done?

A. We never want to see another pandemic; yet, the ways we raise animals for food – in crowded, confined conditions – increases the risk for future novel infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance. Today, more than 70% of medically important antibiotics are fed to animals. This significantly increases the risk that harmful bacteria could become resistant to antibiotics. This is not good for human health.

As an individual, your most important contribution to slow down climate change, improve your health, and reduce the risk for antibiotic resistance comes from your food choices. Studies show that transitioning to a primarily plant-based diet and reducing food waste can significantly lower your personal contribution to climate-change emissions, save water, save land, save resources, save antibiotics, and save money! Win-win-win.

Dr. Dana Hunnes is an assistant professor of community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and a clinical inpatient dietitian at RR-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. Hunnes completed her BS at Cornell University with a double major in Nutrition and Human Biology, Health, and Society; her RD-training (dietetic internship) at Emory University Hospitals and health system. Her MPH and PhD are from UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health, in the department of Community Health Sciences; Hunnes’ dissertation research focused on how climate change affects food security in Ethiopia.