Nutrition Ecology - Introduction
Nutrition ecology is a relatively recent term, coined in 1986 by a group of nutritionists from the University of Giessen, in Germany. It is an inter-disciplinary science, which examines all components of the food chain and evaluates their effects from four main points of view: human health, the environment, society and the economy.
The components of the food chain are those involved in the process of food production and consumption. This means the whole cycle is followed "from the cradle to the grave", including the production, harvesting, conservation, storage, transport, processing, packaging, sales, distribution, preparation, making up and consumption of food and the disposal of the waste materials produced during the various phases.
The concept of nutrition ecology has ancient roots, and came out of the need to evaluate the consequences of animal breeding, and of agriculture on a vast scale. But it was only at the end of the twentieth century that the concept of nutrition ecology was formalised. It should not however be confused with econutrition, which limits itself to studying the interactions between nutrition and the environment, or with Ecology of Nutrition, restricted to the study of the eating habits of indigenous populations.
The four dimensions of nutrition ecology listed above form the basis for evaluating the sustainability of a way of eating. The term sustainability was coined in the seventeenth century by German forestry experts to indicate the quantity of trees which could be felled in a sustainable manner, i.e. only those which would be able to grow back within an acceptable period of time.
The meaning was then extended to indicate a type of development which satisfies current needs without diminishing the possibilities for future generations to satisfy the same needs.
From a nutritional point of view, sustainability implies the adoption of a lifestyle which foresees:
- an equal distribution of food resources, in a world where over 800 million people suffer from malnourishment - social aspect;
- the choice of a quality and quantity of food which ensures an adequate (with no deficiencies) and optimal diet (which can prevent degenerative diseases linked to diet, typical of affluent countries) - health aspect;
- a sustainable environmental impact - ecological aspect.
When we talk about "food safety" in industrialised countries, normally we think of food quality in terms of nutritional content, and sanitary inspections for the presence of pathogens and contaminants. The recently established European Food Safety Authority, set up to guarantee food safety for consumers, deals only with this latter sanitary aspect, and only in the short and very short term, while ignoring the much more important and complex medium and long-term issues, such as human health in the long term, and impact on the environment and on society as a whole. In short, sustainability.
It is therefore important to give the various aspects of nutrition ecology the attention they deserve: these aspects include the global quality of food, the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA, a calculation of the impact of the entire food production cycle and waste disposal on health and the environment), but also the influence of eating habits on climate, world nutrition (and therefore also on the problem of world hunger) and on the cost of food, both in monetary terms and in terms of the consumption of resources.
Research and divulgation
The science of nutrition ecology offers mechanisms to allow the comparison of various eating habits and production processes, and to allow us to identify the best strategies to adopt.
NEIC has therefore set itself the objective of studying the issues of nutrition ecology and disseminating scientific information in this field at all levels, from national government, supranational institutions, NGOs operating throughout the world and consumer associations, right down to individual citizens, because food choices do not depend solely on governments, but to a great extent on the individual choices of ordinary citizens, who have great power - and therefore great responsibilities - in this regard.
It would appear fundamental, then, that action is needed to educate the population in order to "modify the attitude of the collective towards consumption and individual behaviour", as foreseen by the first requirement of the EC Programme. By educating people to eat differently and choose simple and plant-based foods, it will be possible to safeguard the health of the collectivity and of the planet itself.
A brief overview of current problems
Farmed animals, considered machines which transform vegetable resources into animal ones, are completely inefficient. The conversion index is defined as the quantity of kilograms of vegetable foodstuff necessary to increase the weight of the animal by one kilogramme: for a bovine, 11 kg of vegetable foodstuff is necessary on average to increase the animal's weight by one kilogramme; counting the waste from slaughter, 15 kg of foodstuff is necessary to obtain 1 kg of meat. If we make a comparison in terms of proteins rather than the weight of the vegetable foodstuff, the results are similar: 16 kg of vegetable protein is required to produce one kg of animal protein. This is why farmed animals are called "protein factories in reverse".
As well as obvious social problems (unequal distribution of resources), this waste of resources also has a severe impact on the environment.
One of the most serious problems for the environment is water consumption. Most of the water on the planet is used for:
- producing the foodstuff required to maintain gastric activity levels in ruminants and satisfy their hunger;
- watering the animals;
- cleaning sheds, milking rooms and so on.
The executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute has recently declared (august 2004): "Animals fed on grain, and also those which rely on grazing, need far more water than grain crops. But in the developed world, and in parts of some developing countries, consumers are demanding more meat <...>. But it's going to be almost impossible to feed future generations the kind of diet we have now in western Europe and North America". He also added that the rich countries will be able to buy themselves a way out by importing virtual water, which means importing food (feed for animals or meat) from other countries, also from those ones which have not enough water. [Hungry world 'must eat less meat', by Alex Kirby, BBC News Online environment correspondent, August 15, 2004]
In the Amazon rainforest, 88% of the cleared forest has been turned into pastureland. And deforestation continues at an ever-increasing rate. In 2003 there was an increase of 40% in deforestation compared to the previous year. In just ten years, the region has lost an area twice the size of Portugal, and a large part of this has become pastureland. The felling operations for the wood market have less influence on deforestation than meat production does [Kaimowitz D., Mertens B., Wunder S., Pacheco P. Hamburger connection Fuels Amazon Destruction, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), April 2003].
In semi-arid areas such as Africa, the exploitation of the land for extensive farming (whose products are exported to rich countries) leads to desertification, i.e. the reduction of the productivity of these lands to zero. The United Nations estimate that 70% of the land currently used for pastureland will soon become desert.
Our current way of eating is the cause of a two-fold problem of malnutrition – a lack of food and water in poor countries, and an excess of proteins and animal fats in affluent countries, one of the main causes of death today.