By Dr. Vanessa Woods
(Irish Examiner, 16 December 2019)
Let’s start with the facts. Farmers produce high-quality, nutritious food, which consumers require for health. We are often guilty of treating food as a commodity, because it can be more plentiful nowadays. Nutrient-dense food contains more nutrients (e.g. protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals) than calories. If consumers don’t eat the essential nutrients, health is compromised, and nobody wants that. Essential nutrients are ‘essential’ because we cannot make them in our bodies.
Learning from the Past to Shape our Future
Looking back to the past to understand the present is important. Learning from the past to influence our future is equally important and perhaps something that we fail to do in our busy lives. My mother tells me that when she was growing up, there was a ration book for tea, because it was scarce, and food was never wasted in her home. Her own mother would churn butter on the farm, made by hand after her father milked the cows. My grandparents lived until their mid to late eighties and they did so on a simple wholesome diet of nutritious meat, eggs, dairy and vegetables.
We are now living in an era where food choice has never been greater. We have sophisticated marketing, high-end science published in peer-reviewed journals (that doesn’t always reach consumers) and agri-technology, all making farming more efficient and therefore more sustainable. But what does sustainability mean? Sustainability is simply meeting the needs of today, without compromising those of tomorrow and the future.
United by Food and Health
We are all consumers and we are united by food. We all need and expect high-quality, nutritious food for energy, sustenance, essential nutrients, good health and indeed enjoyment-because food is part of our culture, it is embedded in our DNA.
Let’s remember that without farmers there is no food, without processors there is no product for market, without retailers there is no opportunity to purchase food, and until consumers buy the food, nobody gets rewarded (including consumers). The importance of collaboration right across the food value chain has never been greater and more engagement is required at all levels, including with and among consumers.
Consumers and Farmers – A Natural Partnership
As with all successful partnerships, relevant and effective communication is key. An inclusive partnership will facilitate consumers in better understanding the nutrient content/density of food choices available to them and the sustainability of Irish food, grown with care and pride by Irish farmers. After all, Irish farmers are world-renowned for having mastered the art of efficiently converting the inedible fibre in our lush green grass, naturally washed by Irish rain, into high-quality, nutritious food for consumers.
Every consumer has a carbon footprint, every single day-we are all guilty of that. But what exactly is a carbon footprint? A carbon footprint is the total set of greenhouse gas emissions caused directly or indirectly by an individual, a product or an event. Whether that’s boiling the kettle, growing or cooking our food, having a shower, or indeed, wasting food. We all have a role to play in reducing our carbon footprint, and we should also be cognisant of the fact that we are united in our desire for and entitlement to, good food-sustainably produced, for good health, via a balanced diet.
The Role of Science in Eliminating Consumer Confusion
More recently, the debate around food choices and their environmental impact has confused consumers. Science, communicated simply, can eliminate confusion by presenting clear facts. For example, recent peer-reviewed science reported that the nutrient density of cow’s milk was 7 and 35 times greater than soy drink and oat drink respectively.
Although greenhouse gas emissions from cow’s milk were 3.3 and 4.7 times higher than soy and oat drinks respectively, consumers need to understand that these three beverages are not the same. The point at which the higher carbon footprint of nutrient-dense foods like dairy and meat is offset by their higher nutritional value, is a key focus area. It is not simply a case of saying that X is good, and Y is bad. Nothing is ever that simple.
Interestingly, for consumers who enjoy a glass of red wine, its nutrient density was very low (similar to oat drink) and its greenhouse gas emissions were the highest of all eight beverages examined in this study, being more than twice that of cow’s milk.
Continuous, effective communication between farmers and consumers will deliver a natural partnership and an awareness of and appreciation for the science is key.