UCSF Sustainability Stories

Ana Toepel, Green Impact, May 2019

Sustainable Food Spotlighted as Solution to Climate Change

Is global food production the largest driver of environmental degradation on our planet? Yes, according to a new report from the Eat-Lancet Commission produced earlier this year. 

The 2019 Lancet report asserts that a “radical transformation of the global food system is urgently needed” to address the threat that current food consumption and production pose to both human health and the health of the Earth’s climate and ecosystems—and calls for “healthy diets from sustainable food systems.” Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, this transformation is already underway, with burgeoning movements for regenerative agriculture, healthy soils, and organic, nutrient-rich food options. UCSF is making a contribution as well, implementing sustainable food policies and practices that encourage healthier, more environmentally-friendly diets and address food’s impact on climate change. 

Read on to learn more.

EAT-Lancet Proposes Planetary Health Diet

The Eat-Lancet Commission has just one goal: achieve planetary health diets—diets that are both healthy and environmentally sustainable—for a global population of 10 billion people by 2050. That’s no small task, you may be thinking, but, according to the Commission, meeting this goal is both possible and necessary. 

The commission claims two components of the food system disproportionately impact human health and environmental sustainability: food consumption and food production. It recommends a doubling in the consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts and a greater than 50% reduction in global consumption of added sugars and red meat. These dietary changes are likely to result in major health benefits, including preventing approximately 11 million deaths per year (19%- 24% of total adult deaths). With regards to food production, the commission examines how it affects processes like climate change, freshwater use, and biodiversity loss—and outlines boundaries that global food production should stay within to decrease the risk of irreversible and potentially catastrophic impacts on the Earth.

The commission’s research suggests that it is possible for the food system to function within the safe operating space for the planet if we make a substantial shift to mostly plant-based diets, halve food losses and waste at a minimum, and make major improvements in food production practices such as prioritizing healthy food production over high quantity production, enhancing biodiversity within agricultural systems, and implementing changes in crop, feed, and water management. The commission says now is the time to start: “When it comes to a great food transformation…the data are both sufficient and strong enough to warrant immediate action.”

UCSF Dishes Up Cool Food

UCSF is doing is doing its part to contribute to the shift to sustainable food production and consumption. One noteworthy contribution is UCSF Health signing on to the World Resources Institute’s Cool Food Pledge, which asks signatories to pledge to “provide delicious food that is better for the planet” and commit to a collective target of reducing the GHG emissions associated with the food they provide by 25 percent by 2030 relative to 2015. To do this, signatories develop a plan for serving more plant-based, climate-friendly food and track the climate impact of the food they serve.

As outlined in the Sustainability Annual Report FY 17-18, UCSF is making sustainable food purchases, offering sustainable and healthy food options, serving less meat, and tackling food waste. As of FY18, seven departments had signed on to avoid purchasing beef and lamb with departmental funds and to avoid serving beef or lamb at departmental events. Campus Life Services (CLS) Retail and UCSF Health achieved a total spend on sustainable food of 45% and 24%, respectively—and there are weekly Farmers’ Markets at Parnassus campus and Mission Bay campus. 

In addition to answering the call for healthy diets and sustainable foods, UCSF is also doing its part to contribute to the cut in food waste called for by EAT-Lancet.  In FY18 UCSF developed a tool for tackling food waste on campus, Food 4 UCSF Students, which is an app that sends messages to students when there is leftover food from catered events. UCSF encourages event planners to sign up for the app as a provider so they can alert students when food is available, rather than allow that food to be wasted. Leftover food at UCSF’s student food market is also made available to students through a text alert on the app.

Sustainable Food Blooms in the Bay Area

To find signs of the food system’s transformation we don’t have to go far here in San Francisco. The Bay Area has burgeoning movements for sustainable food and ecologically-friendly farming, and the region is now a hot spot for sustainable agriculture. The annual Eco Farm Conference, which brings together the sustainable agriculture community, is held near Monterey and features many farmers, ranchers, and sustainable food organizations from the region. This year a main theme was the connection between food and climate, and how farming approaches like regenerative agriculture can address climate change. Several recommendations from the Eat-Lancet report are being implemented here in the region, including focusing on quality over quantity in food production, support for biodiversity, and crop and water management that is more mindful of the environment.

As the connection between food and climate becomes clearer, regenerative agriculture, which is taking root around the Bay, could soon become the ideal in food production. This approach to farming and land management restores the biological balance of the soil by bringing much needed minerals and biodiversity back to the land and recapturing carbon in the soil where it is nourishing and has value. It’s farming the way it used to be—making conscious use of earth’s natural resources and animals’ natural habits to rebalance the carbon cycle. Some practices include managed grazing of livestock, no-till farming, organic composting, and ecological water management. This was a theme at last month’s The Grassfed Exchange conference in Santa Rosa, where regenerative ranchers, dairymen, and sustainable food supporters from all over came together to exchange ideas and tour local farms and ranches to see their practices firsthand.

Diverging somewhat from EAT-Lancet’s belief that a plant forward diet is the solution to food consumption’s heavy impact on the planet, farmers and ranchers at the conference promoted the climate benefits of well-managed grazing of animals on natural grasslands.  According to these farmers and ranchers, such as Doniga Markegard of Markegard Family Grassfed in the South Bay, this practice not only has major benefits for the soil and environment but also for human health. The meat and dairy products from animals that feed on organic grass pastures—termed grass-fed and pasture-raised products—are healthier, providing more good fats and antioxidant vitamins than commercial products.

When it comes to the question of meat vs no meat there are no easy answers. But, it seems that the EAT-Lancet Commission and regenerative ranchers do agree that the way meat is currently being produced is destructive and that making the food system sustainable is an urgent priority. The unifying message might be this: if you consume meat, consider consuming less, and make sure it’s local grass-fed and pasture-raised meat.

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Images: 2019 Eat-Lancet report, Unsplash