Well Fed? Three Oxford Academics Debate Combined Approaches to Environmental Sustainabilty and Health

Last week, at the Oxford Martin School, three academics – Professor Susan Jebb, Dr Tara Garnett and Professor Mike Raynor – met to discuss issues surrounding […]

Last week, at the Oxford Martin School, three academics – Professor Susan Jebb, Dr Tara Garnett and Professor Mike Raynor – met to discuss issues surrounding environmental sustainability and health. Contentious as these issues are in isolation, it was by discussing them together, the speakers argued, that we could address change in both. A video recording of the talk is available here.

Professor Jebb, a nutrition scientist based at Oxford, began the event by discussing the difficulties faced by policy-makers and advisors in translating scientific evidence to government action and hard results. Particularly concerned with obesity, Prof. Jebb emphasised the many ways in which it can be a problem for the individual as well as the state. The marked personal health risks incurred by a high body mass index (BMI) are well-characterised. For example, several studies agree that individuals classed as obese (BMI >30) are at a 30-fold increased risk of developing type II diabetes compared to healthy individuals of the same age and sex.

Prof. Jebb reviewed international guidelines for reducing obesity in populations, and noted the dramatic effects a change in diet can have for health. A 2002 Finnish study, which strictly controlled the diets of its participants, saw the risks of developing type 2 diabetes more than halved. The problem, she stressed, was turning these results into real life results – changing diets in the real world is a slow and difficult process.

Dr Garnett – founder and leader of the Oxford-based Food Climate Research Network – began by emphasising that we cannot tackle health in the long term without also addressing environmental sustainability. She stressed the interconnected way in which food and the environment feature in our lives; culinary choices influenced by religion, convenience, education and job security, to name a few. When we make a choice about buying a product, we influence a chain of causation far wider than we might realise. The carbon footprints of foods are barely visible, let alone our ability to understand how buying one good over another affects the livelihoods of those producing this good over their rivals. The energy used to make a bowl of porridge does not stop with our buying oats and milk from a supermarket, but when we empty our dishwasher of the spoon we used to eat it. In her view, this means that we cannot talk about solutions to nutrition-related health problems without considering the wider context.

The greatest environmental concerns surrounding food production relate to the ways in which it is forcing us to adopt new methods of exploiting available arable land. Seventy percent of water worldwide is used in agriculture, and as populations grow, this will create huge pressure in those areas where water is already scarce. Dr Garnett highlighted repeatedly referenced the disparity in the ways in which environmental unsustainability affects those already worst off. She also discussed how nutritional goals and sustainability goals are not always in alignment and how confusing and misleading advice in the media can be for the consumer. Buying local might create greater carbon emissions than international shipping if a farm is inefficient, and farming cows in fields causes much greater emissions than chickens in densely populated barns. We should focus, she argued, on minimising the damage we do to ourselves and the environment by reconsidering the way we value foods such as meat, and by trying to diversify our sources of nutrition.

The final contributor to the discussion was Professor Raynor, the Director of the British Heart Foundation Centre on Population Approaches for NCD Prevention. In contrast to the pervious speakers, he emphasised the  emphasised the complexity of the myriad factors that contribute to obesity, and the lack of regard for individual agency by many researchers. A framework for obesity, he argued, must consider both the subjectivity of humans and humans as objects of research. The problems of obesity, too, must be approached with interest in the individual and the group. We should use different approaches to answer such diverse questions as ‘Why am I fat?’ and ‘Why is that group fat?’. Different academic disciplines are generally focused on different angles; the subjective individual or the group-as-an-object. It is through interdisciplinary study, he argued, that we can start to find answers to the question of what to do about health problems. Our malaise over consumption manifests in other areas, including as ‘the root cause of global warming’ Prof. Raynor stated.

Questions from the audience centred on where we could go forward from these messages of complexity and general apathy. The taxation of sugary drinks was discussed, with Prof. Jebb emphasising a lack of political will and a difficulty in producing results linking market intervention with consumption as a great barrier. The lack of tolerance of obese individuals and the backlashes generated by consumers over reduced portion sizes all contribute to a lack of policy making in this area. While comparisons with smoking were made, Jebb argued that nutrition and obesity were far more difficult an area to tackle. Raynor emphasised that change is possible, like the widespread switch from butter to vegetable-based oils across kitchens in the UK, but argued that industry pressure had contributed to political apathy in this field.

On a final note, Prof. Jebb argued that simplification of conflicting and confusing dietary guidelines would represent a major step in our efforts to deal with the obesity epidemic. The public is bombarded with messages which, although diverse at face value, typically promote similar dietary habits. The most powerful way to effect change, she argued, was to encourage food retailers to align their societal responsibility and commercial goals. At present, however, she feels this is “not at the heart of their ethos”.

Broadly, all three speakers agreed about the ways in which we can instigate change, and on the importance of this change. The talk was engaging and well-focused on the problems addressed and their causes. The speakers each gave a different, but related insight into areas health and environmental sustainability, and this really emphasised the importance of their message; to stop considering nutrition, health and the environment in isolation.

About Katherine Hignett

Philosophy graduate, medical anthropology student.