What Nutrition Science Can Teach Us about Climate Response

by | Oct 7, 2010

Famously, Michael Pollan has offered the mantra that the key to our nutritional, agricultural, and environmental quandaries may be as fundamental as eating less while spending more on the food we do consume. It’s a useful rule of thumb that fits nicely into the need for most of us to see the world in simple, concrete terms.

Nutritionist Kate Geagan reminded me of “Pollan’s law” while a group of us tried to make sense of the impressive body of research being presented at a unique international gathering of passionate, inspiring scientists working on solutions to our growing human, agricultural, and environmental crises, being held this week in Greece. As deeply complex data are discussed among peers that add dimension to human understanding of the interactions between nutrition, genetics, food chemistry, and lifestyle, it becomes the job of nutritionists and dieticians (and those like Pollan) to absorb, analyze, and then distill pertinent information for a mainstream, food-consuming public that, especially in the United States, seems programmed for black-and-white oversimplification: low-fat diets, high-protein diets, high-fiber diets, French diet, Greek diet, nuts, chocolate, red wine, and so on. We seem only able to process silver bullets – which seem to change with mind-blowing frequency – making the job of the popular nutrition community impossibly daunting.

While the world is never that simple, there is general agreement, fortunately, on the keys to good health. Good, whole food with key nutrients and regular exercise – with a lucky dose of good genes – is a reasonable guide for the lay public. But it doesn’t diminish the need for healthy scientific inquiry about how to understand connections more clearly and how to think about the future of nutrition in a world with complicated food production challenges, climate zones, and resource realities. Consider the fact that a primary source of the Omega 3 fatty acids that so many scientists believe is an essential part of a healthy diet is fish. A panacea? Perhaps, but only if you are able to see beyond dramatic collapses in fisheries worldwide or the economic cost to consume that fish in the first place.

It’s not difficult to see how these same issues present themselves when we think about climate change. We’ve chosen not to want to understand the complexity of climate change or the interactions between very real human impacts and very real natural cycles. We believe it’s happening or we don’t. We believe it’s human-induced or we don’t. We believe the only way out of the problem is massive expansive of nuclear energy or we don’t. We want quick answers to questions that truly can’t be framed that way. As with nutrition, we want to know the one thing that will save us from ourselves. We can’t handle complexity, nor the behavior change that could address it.

Rather than engage the public in a dynamic discussion about improving urban design to boost physical activity, investing in transportation choices, expanding organic and local food production, motivating consumers to assert real influence on corporations, and vastly diversifying the way we produce energy at all scales, advocates for climate protection are forced to perform like nutritionists. We’re asked to offer oversimplified views of the world. If we don’t seem to support single, large-scale approaches to the problem, we’re dismissed. If we don’t prescribe to political compromises that are designed to create limited accountability for business, utilities, or individuals, we’re pushed to the fringe.

The fact is that a multi-faceted response to the climate crisis can create elegant solutions to so many of the issues we seem unable to connect efficiently. Certainly, there are the national security and domestic job creation benefits of climate-friendly energy policies so many have talked about. But what about climate-friendly land use that shortens the distances to schools and downtowns and jobs and gets people out of cars, on their feet or on bicycles, and in better health? What about incentives that improve nutrition and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging people to produce their own high-quality foods or support local producers? No number of silver bullets can be nearly as beneficial to our communities or to ourselves.

Still, the urge to find them remains. Physician Ole Faergeman offered one on climate change in his keynote address to launch the conference: “Eat plants, plant trees, and leave the coal in the ground.” It’s probably not that simple, but as in nutrition, it certainly makes the point.

Wood Turner is the executive director of Climate Counts and is currently posting from Greece from the Stonyfield Farm-sponsored Inaugural Conference of the World Council on Genetics, Nutrition, and Fitness for Health. He and others are tweeting from the conference at @climatecounts using #greekhealth, and also on Facebook.

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