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Examining the concept of sustainable nutrition—podcast

Audio-Examining the concept of sustainable nutrition—podcast

Exploring how the nutraceutical industry can and must achieve health for both people and planet.

The importance of sustainability is increasingly recognised by the nutraceutical community, and sustainability is on the agenda of consumers, government and nutraceutical brands and manufacturers around the world. But what exactly constitutes a sustainable diet, and how can consumers, brands and ingredients companies find a necessary unity between dietary and planetary health? In a conversation spanning food security, sustainable food systems and corporate responsibility, Vitafoods Insights spoke to founder and director of sustainable food consultancy, Mark Driscoll, about his concept of ‘sustainable nutrition’.

Tune in to learn about:

  • A definition of ‘sustainable nutrition’
  • How to educate consumers on the importance of sustainable diets
  • Why collaboration across the supply chain is essential in revolutionising the way we see functional food and nutraceuticals
  • Whether the plant-based movement is the solution to both malnutrition and climate change
  • Innovation in the nutraceutical industry that is paving the way for more sustainable food systems


Mark Driscoll
Founder and director at Tasting the Future

Vitafoods Insights Podcast

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Podcast transcript:

Vitafoods Insights: 00:04 Welcome to the Vitafoods insights podcast. Join us as we explore the latest science innovation, helping the global health and nutrition industry connect, develop and progress. Today's host is Carla Hill, contributing editor.

Carla: 00:22 Hello, and welcome back to another episode of our Vitafoods insights podcast. I'm Carla Hill contributing editor at Vitafoods and I'm delighted to be joined today by Mark Driscoll. Mark is the founder and director of sustainable food consultancy, tasting the future. He has over 25 years’ experience of working on policy and practice with the aim of transforming food systems, so they are sustainable, healthy, and fair. Mark, welcome and thank you so much for coming on the show.

Mark: 00:51 Thank you, Carla. Nice to be here today.

Carla: 00:53 So I'm really excited to be discussing Mark here today the concept of sustainable nutrition and the necessary you're going to see between dietary and planetary health within the nutraceutical and functional food industry. We've got lots to discuss today from food security and sustainable food systems to corporate responsibility. But Mark, I'd love, if you could start us off by introducing yourself in your own words and giving us a snapshot of your career to date.

Mark: 01:19 Yeah. So, I'm, as you say, founder and director of taste in the future, sustainable food systems consultancy. My formal academic background is in environmental science and sustainable agriculture. I went to London university. Why college? I spent my first six years working actually with the national trust on countryside management. I then spent three or four years working in Thailand as an environmental educator. Then when I returned to the UK, I was director of a County based sustainability charity for a number of years. Then I spent nine years with WWF UK, the world wildlife fund, heading up their one plant food program. And another five or six years as associate director of sustainable nutrition with, for the future. So, there's a very quick run through of my career to date.

Carla: 02:19 That's great. Thanks. Well, it's such an interesting career and amazing to hear all the different things that you've done, but thinking specifically now about tasting the future, your sustainable food consultancy, you applicate us tasting the future for the concept of sustainable nutrition. Can you explain a bit what you mean by this term?

Mark: 02:38 Yeah. So, I work in two main ways. I work with food and beverage sector, really embedding sustainability across their kind of business DNA. I also work both in the UK and globally on a number of international collaboration projects, and really, I use to sustainable nutrition as a concept both to pull together pre-competitive collaborative projects and help businesses with their own strategies. And simply put it's a way of aligning some of the kind of challenges that the world confronts in terms of a human health crisis, obesity, malnutrition, and a planetary health crisis. So, food system contributes to climate change, biodiversity loss, and it's a way of getting organizations to think about how they can work to improve on both planetary and human health outcomes. I really focus on the real need to transform our food system, which currently today is predicated solely on increasing yields, but with less impact, what I would call a productivist approach, to one that reduces environmental impacts whilst optimizing health and nutrition outcomes. So it's no longer good enough to produce more food, more sustainably. We need to focus on the production of nutrient dense foods, which create net positive and regenerative impact whilst optimizing nutritional and health outcomes. So, moving away from a kind of thinking around policy and practice based on just increasing calories per unit area of land, thinking about optimizing numbers of people fed and nourished. So, we can produce lots of food sustainably, but if they're no good for our health, Then you have question that production has those foods. You can produce lots of fresh fruits, foods, fruits, and vegetables, which are good for our own bodies and health, but they also have to be produced sustainably. So, it's about pulling together the health and sustainability and dimensions to really feed into both good planetary and human health outcomes, delivering on the UN sustainable development goals, climate change commitments, etc. And it helps businesses and organizations align often competing and conflicting strategies internally.

Carla: 05:22 You've anticipated my next question then Mark.  It was actually about within the nutraceutical industry whether that kind of dietary health and an ethical consumption are conflicting goals or are they one and the same? And how can we ensure that they are one of the same and a unified goal for our industry?

Mark: 05:39 So I think there's a lot of synergy. Obviously, there's always trade-offs, but generally what's good for the planet is good for our own health and for the nutraceutical industry, you know, I think sustainable nutrition presents a variety of opportunities. And perhaps the biggest one in my view is how the industry looks at sustainably sourced ingredients as having the biggest potential for positively impacting on the industry, sustainability credentials. So sourcing ingredients that are what I call regenerative using regenerative agricultural practices, minimizing packaging and waste. And the biggest challenge for that sector is really understanding where their sustainability material impacts lie, the kind of key future trends that are going to impact on the industry, the risks and opportunities that those trends present. So there's a real opportunity, I think, particularly for the nutraceutical sector to think about producing products, sourcing ingredients that are benefit to citizens, that improve those kind of both planetary and human health perspectives, which citizens, consumers are increasingly concerned about.

Carla: 07:12 That's interesting Mark, that you, you put the spotlight there on, on ingredients as both kind of centre, a solution of this problem. Whose responsibility really do you think it is to think about sustainable diets? Is it, as you say that the ingredients manufactories or was it also brands and even consumers?

Mark: 07:29 So I think sustainable, healthy diets is the responsibility of many stakeholders. The food we eat really does contribute, you know, I think something like 34% of total greenhouse gas emissions, it drives land use change, which in turn drives deforestation and wildlife loss. Many people suffer from hunger and food insecurity. And obviously billion or so people across the planet suffer from obesity, actually over consumption of certain food stuffs. And therefore, it's got to be the responsibility of everyone. Brands and manufacturers can make sure that they source ingredients sustainably. They focus on the health dimension of these products, consumers through the choices that you make you know, in terms of what they eat three times a day, or what they put in their shopping baskets can think about choosing products that are ethically sourced, sustainably labelled, healthy. I think even governments, we need a level playing field in terms of policy procurement standards, taxation food-based dietary guidelines actually have as important role to play. And in a way is often a kind of missing piece of the jigsaw in terms of responsibility for ensuring sustainable and healthy diets.

Carla: 09:01 Definitely. And I guess a lot of this is really about consumer education and making sure that we have a kind of community of consumers who feel educated and, and confident in their own sustainable nutrition. How do you think that we can educate consumers on the importance of sustainable nutrition?

Mark: 09:17 It's a good question. And to me it is about education, but it's more than I think just about education. I think in an increasingly urbanized society, consumers have been quite disconnected from the growing production of food. I actually think we should think about changing the terminology almost away from consumers as just the recipients of food, to thinking about moving from consumers to citizens as actually engaging within our food system, linking citizens and consumers with producers, really kind of re-empowering consumers and citizens with our food systems so they understand some of the challenges, some of the issues, the efforts producers put into securing food at the table, on all the way through many other things, kind of food literacy in schools, I think there needs to be much more done to connect kids with foods, the growing of foods, you know, healthy, nutritious foods all the way through to, you know, Our planning system, we connecting citizens through allotments community, growing initiatives to improving kind of things like food environment. So the role of marketing and labelling of healthy, nutritious foods, for example.

Carla: 10:47 Yeah. I love that. I love that kind of realignment and empowerment, really, of the consumer. And sometimes it's easy to kind of forget we're all consumers really. And sometimes that consumer position can be a bit side-lined. But I think that's a very kind of holistic and healthy way to think about it really. So, Mark, we've been talking a lot about sustainable diets. You mentioned in terms like sustainable labelling, healthy foods, but what would you define as a sustainable diet? What would constitute looking down at, at the plate of a consumer or the product to the consumer and thinking, yes, this is a sustainable product.

Mark: 11:21 So I think that's, again, a good question. And ultimately there's no one accepted definition of a healthy and sustainable diet. It depends on where you are in the world and where you're, you're sitting in some of your values, I think. And yeah, the kind of difference in terms of cultural and geographical perceptions and interpretations of both the term sustainability and what is good health. But in general, I think people agree and there's increasing at Alliance that healthy and sustainable diets are those that provide us with many nutrients we need for health, in appropriate amounts that are culturally acceptable, affordable, and sustainable, and ultimately diets that continue to deliver better human, animal, planetary health. And in general, I think you can probably categorize them as those diets that contain large proportions of plants within diets. So lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts legumes, and making plants, the center of diets, rather than meat, traditional indigenous crops. Yes, moderate amounts of dairy, poultry, fish, but in smaller amounts and ensuring they are sustainably produced. So, things like red meat, kind of grass-fed pasture, extensive regenerative livestock systems. We can't forget the role of fish, so Marine stewardship council, fish, or fish from sustainable sources, local and seasonal food. You know, reductions in food waste, things like safe and clean drinking, or tap water as opposed to lots of sugary soft drinks. And in other parts of the world, things like breastfeeding and preference to milk formulas. So, there's half a dozen or eight or so kind of key areas in which you can put sustainable, healthy diets.

Carla: 13:30 Definitely. It's a, it's a complex issue for sure. Mark, talking a bit there about kind of the role of poultry and other meats and fish and dairy. But I know you've also mentioned a bit about kind of plants and the power of plants in terms of sustainable nutrition. We've talked a bit about animal feed, sometimes very intensive practice of animal agriculture. So, would you say that the plant-based opportunity is, is one which ensures a fair and, and healthier food system? Do you advocate for plant-based ceasing or do you think that, you know, we will be able in future to continue consuming products like meat and dairy? And the nutraceutical industry can continue to have these meat and dairy ingredients at the forefront of their agenda or not?

Mark: 14:14 I'm not an advocate for totally vegan diet. I think meat and dairy will have a role to play in the future, but a much smaller role, all the science and evidence suggests that certainly in parts of Europe, North America, we have to radically reduce the amount of meat and dairy we consume perhaps by, you know, 50% or more because getting more plant-based diets into our bodies is one of the biggest factors that are going to improve both health of our bodies and planetary health. And there are huge opportunities here. I think forecast growth of plant-based protein and meat alternatives, I saw a figure, you know, the projected increase by 2024 being about 480, 490 billion us dollars per year. This presents huge opportunities for those businesses investing in these alternatives. Actually the, what I would call the flexitarian markets, so those citizens who are conscious of their environmental footprint that want to improve their health, that perhaps don't want to give up meat totally, but want to reduce it. The flexitarian market is the biggest opportunity. And I think 70% of consumers, again, according to recent research would call themselves, you know, kind of more flexitarian, so really big opportunities and more nutraceutical companies brands, manufacturers need to be thinking about what I've called the power of plants, because they are quite a powerful driver of citizen and consumer change.

Carla: 16:03 We've talked about earlier about issues of world hunger and malnutrition, and the role that sustainable nutrition can play in solving these problems. How can nutraceuticals brands who traditionally target more elite consumers ensure that they are also achieving their goals of addressing food crisis and, and more global issues of malnutrition?

Mark: 16:24 And that's a really good question. And I think presents quite a challenge to the nutraceutical industry. In my view, there's an opportunity for the nutraceutical industry to think about how their products can contribute towards healthy and sustainable diets. They're taking much more of a kind of holistic approach and in a way, moving beyond necessarily just the focus on the sustainability and health credentials of their products, but to think about how they can educate consumers and citizens in terms of how their products can contribute towards healthy and sustainable diets. I think there are some real challenges and I mentioned the UN 17 sustainable development goals that will improve planetary and human health. I think though, issues of affordability and accessibility here, and I think the nutraceutical industry can really kind of encourage and support farmers and citizens to access what I would call nutrient dense foods and how nutraceuticals can complement not replace those foods, and to work in collaboration with others, to ensure accessibility and affordability of these products and diets to those suffering from malnutrition or are food insecure. Certainly, in the UK, we've got a big problem with food poverty at the moment, and it's only by collaboration that we can address those issues.

Carla: 18:07 I'm glad Mark you're talking about collaboration. I think that's a really important way of solving the issue here. In what way would you say collaboration between all these different stakeholders, farmers, nutraceutical manufacturers, and brands, in what way is that collaboration important to achieve sustainable food systems? Do you think also that collaboration that is possible because we are in increasingly competitive landscape and sometimes perhaps brands or manufacturers may not want to work across the supply chain together in that way. So, so how do you think we can achieve that collaboration as well?

Mark: 18:41 So collaboration is absolutely key, and sustainability ultimately has to be pre-competitive. It has to be pre-competitive collaboration between nutraceutical manufacturers and brands, but also between the industry working with other actors across sectors. So nutraceuticals working with farmers, NGOs, brands, governments at different scales, even internationally, nationally and locally. And I think particularly because many organizations face share challenges, the need to tackle malnutrition under and over nutrition, climate change, the biodiversity. Crisis requires collaboration and collaboration, I think there's much more the industry can do to push governments to ensure that they support the production, manufacturing and consumption of foods that are better for planet and human health and much of my work over the years through things like the protein challenge, 2040 initiative, which was pulling together businesses in the protein sector with civil society, organizations, and governments, to look at how we can scale up policy and practice has been really kind of targeted at the need for collaboration.

Carla: 20:10 It's definitely a very intermingled and, and powerful food, but when we get it working for sure. Can you tell us a bit about some examples of, of innovation which are happening in the industry, which are paving the way hopefully for a more equitable and environmentally food system?

Mark: 20:27 So there's a lot of, lot of innovation happening at I kind of product level, lots of businesses looking at alternative protein sources, for example, looking at algae. In fact, I came across a great business,  Canadian start-up called Pondtech, that's developing a range of high protein supplements spirulina, products as an alternative plant-based product that contains lots of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and produce that kind of blue, green, algae, which is quite famous for its nutritious properties. It's a kind of blue colour, it's been used as a dye in the industry, not just for human feed, but actually producing algae for animal feed to replace soya and fishmeal, which have particular sustainability challenges all the way through to, you know, companies working on CBD through the growth of hemp and alternative ingredients, what I would call more kind of orphan crops. Things like hemp is a phenomenal product that's making a comeback used as an increasing ingredient, new protein, superfood from a sustainability perspective, thrives in nutrient poor soils doesn't require fertilizers, pesticides. That's what I would call a regenerative crop and produces lots of highly nutritious and nutrient dense foods. There are lots of exciting examples in the industry. Another area I would probably just point out is, you know, many companies looking at probiotics, looking at gut health, for example, and how ingredients that improve our gut microbiota actually increasing evidence shows how that links in terms of proving physical health, improving mental health mood. I think we're just on the cutting edge of some of the science, which is really exciting, again, with a real focus and emphasis on improving both sustainability and health credentials of these products.

Carla: 22:56 It's definitely such an exciting time to be in this industry, for sure. Mark, it's been such an interesting discussion. I just have one final question for you, which is what would a world of sustainable nutrition look like to you and how will you know that we have achieved that? And also, are you optimistic that we will?

Mark: 23:13 I am optimistic taking the last question first, I suppose that's the nature of the work I do. I believe, you know, we do have to transform, uh, food systems, still we produce too many products and ingredients with energy dense, but empty calories that are no good or don't really improve human health. And we're producing too many ingredients products using unsustainable forms of agriculture and food production techniques, you know, I think increasing collaboration that we've touched on this needs to be pretty competitive businesses really need to align their own strategies internally. Sustainability and health need to be part of the business DNA, not being seen as an add on and ultimately consumers or citizens should only have sustainable and healthy choices, but I'm positive and optimistic moving forward.

Carla: 24:24 Well, that is an amazing positive note to end on. Thank you so much, Mark. It's been an absolute pleasure to have you on the show, such an important topic and, and loads of exciting and interesting insights for the nutraceutical industry. I hope our listeners have enjoyed just as much as me, but that's all for now and I'm sure we'll see you on the show again. Thanks Mark.

Mark: 24:42 Thank you.


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