Behaviour modification, such as mask wearing and physical distancing, became mainstream practices for keeping our neighbours, friends and family safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We were reminded that good health is multifaceted and it includes the health and safety of the people around us. Individual health is reliant on community health and vice versa.
Similarly, the link between the health of the planet and human health is undeniable. Clean air, nutritious food and a stable climate are essential to human health. The Industrial Age led us to the current situation whereby human activity has unfurled on a massive scale and without regard for the natural world. The incognizant behaviour has resulted in detrimental effects such as biodiversity loss, land degradation, water pollution and climate change, in addition to causing the largest public health threat of our time.
On April 7, the World Health Organization (WHO) will mark World Health Day with a salient message. This year’s theme, ‘our planet, our health,’ illustrates the need to mend our relationship with the planet if we are to preserve human life. WHO has released a manifesto for a healthy and green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, providing a clear path forward. Our collective task is to shift our behaviours immediately. A tangible example of how to move forward lies within the dietary choices we make multiple times a day.
Food is foundational to our health and it is a central focus of climate change. Food is personal, cultural and it can be a socially charged issue. Financial status and education also impact our food options. This contextual fabric shapes our food choices and places us on a food consumption spectrum. Within the spectrum, there is a large gap between those who can access healthy, nutritious food and those who cannot.
Recent estimates indicate more than 800 million people globally are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Paradoxically, two billion people meet the clinical criteria for overweight or obesity status. Lower income countries are overburdened with childhood malnutrition due to protein deficiencies whereas countries such as Canada see average individual protein consumption levels at double the recommended amount.
The Canadian Food Guide was updated in 2018 to align with diet related research which shows people with plant rich diets have lower incidences of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, strokes, cancer rates and decreased risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Formerly a food pyramid, the new food guide takes the shape of a dinner plate. The aim is to have the majority of the plate filled with plant-rich food such as legumes, leafy greens and whole grains while avoiding highly processed foods and beverages.
Shifting global food consumption to a primarily plant-centred diet ranks as the third most effective solution for halting climate change. Mass production of animal farming generally requires large amounts of feed, land, water and fossil fuel. Recent calculations demonstrate that 20 times the amount of land is required to produce a calorie of beef in contrast to a calorie of beans. Reducing animal protein consumption and processed foods are not only actions we can each take to improve our personal health, they will ultimately improve health outcomes for our communities and future generations.
The fight to regain planetary health has arrived on our doorsteps. It is frivolous to assert blame or deny evidence. Not unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, the call to action is for our personal health and the health of our friends and neighbours. Now is the time to make clear, conscious and decisive choices to shift our behaviours – this time, we can begin with our dinner plate.
Megan Tomlinson is a registered nurse and a member of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment (CANE), B.C. Chapter https://cane-aiie.ca/bc/