UN report ups the ante on health and sustainability

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A damning UN report suggests time is running out to reverse environmental damage caused by waste and pollution, with major implications for businesses

The UN’s has produced its sixth Global Environment Outlook report, convening 250 scientists from more than 70 countries. Described as “the most comprehensive and rigorous assessment on the state of the environment completed by the UN in the last five years” by UN Environment, the United Nations agency responsible for coordinating the organisation’s climate policy, it makes for grim reading.

The report predicts millions of premature deaths in Asia, Africa and the Middle East’s developing cities and nation without major new environmental protections by the middle of the century. Polluted freshwater systems will see anti-microbial resistance become the number one cause of global deaths by 2050, with further implications for fertility and neurodevelopment.

The key point of the report is that the inextricably linked issues of environmental and human health are being endangered by a lack of action and consensus. More than 8 million tons of plastic goes into the oceans each year and, despite the UN General Assembly adopting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 to limit the impact of waste and climate change, the world is scheduled to miss the SDGs for both 2030 and 2050.

The global ecosystem under more strain than ever before, but hope is not lost. The science, technology and finance does exist to put humanity on a more sustainable path. But change will require leadership.

Policy options

The Global Environment Outlook report suggests a number of solutions that could reverse ecological catastrophe.

First is political. The full report urges green investment worth 2% of every country’s GDP to maintain current levels of growth while minimising the impact of climate change and water scarcity. It’s argued that spending to mitigate existing climate damage as per the Paris Agreement targets would cost US $22 trillion in all; a sizeable investment, but a worthwhile one when the US $54 trillion of combined health benefits on offer from reduced air pollution are considered.

Just as important is behavioural change from businesses and individuals. By 2050 there could be 3 billion more mouths to feed globally than present, requiring food production to be increased by 50%. But the report points out 33% of edible food is wasted currently, and 56% of this in industrialised countries. Rather than ramping up production, greater economy from households and business holds the key to humanity’s future.

Where foodservice comes in

This focus on waste and sustainability as the only path to ecological salvation puts foodservice, and foodservice consultants, squarely in the spotlight.

“Economically secure nations should help less well-off nations to develop clean, renewable energy to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions,” says John Turenne FCSI, director of food services and executive chef at Compass Group in the US. “We also need to manage food waste. The US alone wastes 40% of all the food it produces.”

Clara Ming Pi FFCSI agrees, and suggests innovation is the path to efficiency in the supply chain. “Creating food security demands a change in our diets and revolutionary agriculture such as the use of hydroponics to remove land dependency and produce clean, plant-based foods.”

It’s clear that environmental damage on the scale described in the Global Environmental Outlook report will require bright new ideas. But, given the urgency of the problem and the remoteness of some of the most cutting-edge options, how can consultants contribute now?

Tapping into existing initiatives is a crucial starting point. “Familiarise yourself with the EPA’s [US Environmental Protection Agency] Food Waste Pyramid and the hierarchy of waste management strategies,” says Turenne. “Put these into effect with clients.”

The Cool Food Pledge, inaugurated at the end of 2018 to minimise the 30% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by food production and distribution, is another good example. Doing so “helps signatories commit to finding a science-based solution for reducing food-related GHG emissions, develop the best plan to bring about change, and promote their achievements to help build a bigger movement,” says Pi.

In the battle to save the planet, foodservice consultants are on the frontline. The latest UN research shows time is running out; the time for businesses and individuals to act is now.

Thomas Lawrence