According to The Lancet Commission, the world is suffering from a global syndemic: obesity, undernutrition, and climate change. The addition of COVID-19 builds out the concurrent epidemic count to four.
“This brings even further importance into how we produce food at a global level,” said Quorn’s sustainable development manager Tess Kelly at the Westminster Health Forum policy conference this week.
“We believe we don’t have the luxury to tackle obesity, pandemics, and climate change separately any longer at a policy, or from a food industry, perspective.”
The world’s largest meat alternative brand is therefore doubling down on sustainability and health-focused initiatives. The food industry should be “held account in terms of protecting and regenerating food systems and the environment”, the sustainability expert told delegates.
The quadruple threat
The Lancet Commission published its report ‘The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change’ in January 2019, within which it called for a ‘radical rethink’ of business models, food systems, civil society involvement, and national and international government to address the concurrent epidemics.
“A holistic effort to reorient human systems to achieve better human and planetary health is our most important and urgent challenge,” noted the Commission at the time.
UK-based Quorn, which sells its fungi-based mycoprotein products in 20 markets globally, is particularly interested by the ‘very important links’ between the epidemics.
“The report builds on a huge body of evidence…on the links between the way that we produce our food, the impact that that is having on the environment, the inequalities inherent in our systems and between communities, and the intensification of our agricultural systems,” said Quorn’s Kelly.
Concerning the outbreak of COVID-19, and infectious diseases in general, the sustainability lead stressed that consumption behaviours must be addressed.
“We know that 75% of infectious diseases originate from animals. And the fact that our food system – especially industrial agriculture – is continuing to degrade and encroach on our wild environments, and increase our contact with animals (and increase the inequalities that we see in society) [makes it] clear…we must not only address consumption behaviours, but we must also address the way that we produce food together, using all evidence available to us.”
In a recent interview with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, head of the Food and Vector Borne Disease Programme Tamas Bakonyi told FoodNavigator that indeed, virus transmission from animals to humans is an ‘important factor’ in the outbreak and spread of zoonotic pandemics.
However, the food- and vector-borne disease expert said global changes, such as the rapid growth of human populations, must be taken into consideration. When civilisations expand, people occupy greater areas in nature, he explained. “That increases the interface between people and wild animals. And that gives the opportunity for an increased number of transmissions of animal diseases which did not have contact with humans before.”
Climate change and obesity
Referencing the ‘interrelations’ between concurrent epidemics, Quorn’s Kelly linked obesity to climate change.
“On the flip side, the rise in the obesity epidemic we are experiencing also influences climate change as well, through an increase in food and energy consumption,” she told delegates. “So the interrelations between these factors are clear.”
Kelly is not the first to observe this link. In a study published in the journal Obesity late 2019, it was found that people living with obesity consume more food and beverages than those of normal weight. Taking food transport and fossil fuel consumption into account, the report concluded that being obese is associated with about 20% more greenhouse gas emissions than being a normal weight.
Quorn also argues that the increased consumption of animal products has contributed to diet-related ailments in developed countries.
“Over the past 50 years, our population has doubled, whilst our meat consumption and our demand for animal products has actually tripled,” said Kelly. “So we would argue that there are links between diet-related diseases that this increase – and the westernisation of our diets as a whole.”
These associations are at the heart of Quorn’s strategy moving forward, suggested the sustainability expert. “The largest paybacks to society, and the environment, are within addressing those co-drivers and looking to how we can strengthen preventative measures as well as addressing the symptoms.”
An innovation opportunity not to be missed
Quorn welcomes the UK’s new obesity strategy for England, published in July this year. Kelly told delegates the business is ‘further encouraged’ by the National Food Strategy, and its “steps to bring together some of these environmental and social inequalities through a food systems lens”.
Ultimately, the food industry should reflect on the nutritional value of their individual products, and reformulate ‘so that it is at the highest quality’. They should also be held to account, Kelly continued, in terms of protecting and regenerating food systems and the environment.
For Quorn, there is opportunity for innovation here. And the company said it plans to assess its products individually to determine exactly where changes can be made.
“In terms of innovation, there is a significant opportunity – and an opportunity we do not want to miss – in terms of harnessing the surging concern for environmental sustainability and food, especially within our young population. [This] offers another reason to eat well, which doesn’t always revolve around body size,” said the company’s sustainability development manager.
“We’re committed to launching, of course, a full review of our product portfolio to ensure that we identify all opportunities to improve the health benefits of our products.”
The business is also working to better understand the effects of consuming mycoprotein, and Quorn products more generally, in a variety of populations, she revealed, and ‘advancing genuine understanding of the mechanisms of these effects’.
Such initiatives, together with the sharing of ‘best evidence available’, are designed to help advance multiple agendas, Kelly continued. “We believe that we need not only better support in terms of addressing the symptoms, but we need a full scale nutrition transition towards healthy and sustainable diets.”
‘The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change: The Lancet Commission report
Published 27 January 2019
Authors: Boyd A Swinburn, Vivia I Kraak, Steven Allender, Vincent Atkins, Phillip I Baker, Jessica R Bogard et al.
‘The Environmental Foodprint of Obesity’
Published online 20 December 2019
Authors: Faidon Magkos, Inge Tetens, Susanne Gjedsted Bügel, Claus Felby, Simon Rønnow Schacht, James O. Hill, Eric Ravussin, Arne Astrup