A New Paradigm for Healthy Agriculture, Healthy Nutrition, Healthy People


Urban Gardens - Healthy AgricultureModern dietary pressures. For most of my clients, that means opting for a cup of coffee and a to-go muffin at their office desk rather than, say, taking time to enjoy a homemade breakfast at home.

But modern dietary pressures extend well beyond that. I am just back from the Healthy Agriculture, Healthy Nutrition, Healthy People conference (sponsored by Stonyfield), held in Olympia, Greece. While we wait for the official concluding statements from the conference organizers, having finally shaken off the jet lag (and the slight depression from leaving behind all that delicious Greek food), here are some of the topics covered on the last day that, in my mind, powerfully frame the question of what can we do about modern dietary pressures?

Key Idea: Radically rethink our food and water use in cities

Example: Urban Gardens

By 2015, the majority of the world will live in cities. The growing middle class of developing countries currently model development on Americas post WWII suburbs. City growth, too, is based on ideas from city planners of the 1800s.  This means we do it by an enormous carbon footprint, says Dr. Vikram Bhatt of Montreal's McGill University, who presented results from his Urban Greening Project.

Dr. Bhatt discussed (and showed beautiful slides illustrating) the ripple effect of health that happens with urban gardens: parents gardening with their children, organic food production, elimination of food deserts, reduced food miles, recycled water and plastic containers, transforming a  neighborhood from abandoned lots into edible landscapes, improving spatial quality by exploiting underutilized urban areas, and more.

"The physical, social, and economic change is remarkable when you come into these communities," he said, "and it's a critical shift in thinking that must happen if we are to counter some of the modern dietary pressures from urban growth."

Urban gardens also help cool hot urban surfaces, and would provide more vital carbon sinks. Similar results have been reported by Taja Sevelle and her amazing work as founder of Urban Farming.

Key Idea: Countries need a health oriented agriculture

Example: Greener Cow Project

"We've changed the way we eat, but we've also radically changed the way our animals feed,"said French agronomist Pierre Weill. "We need agricultural practices that are healthy from the ground (or the animal) up."

As director of Stonyfield's Greener Cow Project,  Weill presented results from a pilot program with organic dairy farmers that reduced methane from cows (a leading source of this potent GHG) by a whopping 11-15%.  How did they do this? By changing what the cows eat. In fact, moving cows to a diet rich in flax not only cut warming gasses, but it doubled the omega-3 fatty acid content and significantly improved the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid dietary ratio. An added bonus? The cows were exceedingly healthier, living longer, and looking better.

Indeed, it is these types of changes in agriculture, if practiced on a larger scale that can have a powerful ripple effect across many of our modern dietary pressures. As dairy fats represent about 1/3 of total ingested fats in most western diets, it is possible through changes in diet,  to improve milk's environmental and nutritional quality on a large scale, Weill noted.

A health-oriented agriculture also means that National Dietary Guidelines of governments must be based on ecological as well as nutritional considerations. (Sweden's National Food Administration was the first, issuing dietary guidelines last summer that consider both nutritional benefit and environmental impact of food choices).

Key Idea: Embrace the low tech, low cost solutions too

Example: Vitamins for prisoners

"Our criminal justice system assumes behavior is entirely a matter of free will, but how can we exercise free will without using our brains? And how is the brain able to function properly without adequate nutrient supply?"

These were some of the provocative questions posed by Dr. Bernard Gesch from the University of Oxford, one of the world's leading researchers on nutritional status and antisocial behaviors.

In his research, Gesch has found that changing nutritional status through diet and snacks produces significant changes in violent and criminal behavior. Many prisoners, if you look at the science, have shockingly low levels of zinc, for instance, he said. In one study he conducted, the total difference in rates of offenses (and discipline action) of prison subjects getting a multivitamin compared to controls was a startling 69%.

"With adequate nutrition, every single study done so far shows that the rates of prison offenders drop by 1/3, regardless of what's going on with placebo," Gesch said.

And what's the cost? Its 0.2% of the cost of sending someone to prison. In light of the global financial crisis squeezing many government budgets, this alone seems a tremendous upside. And nutrients don't discriminate. The mind and body are not separate.

"Potentially we have simple, humane, highly effected method to reduce rates of violence and antisocial behavior," he said.

I couldn't help but think: What's the larger implication for an adequately nourished world?

Perhaps the most eloquent key idea of all was also delivered by Dr. Bernard Gesch:

"If we are what we eat, then changing our diet will change us."

There was universal nodding. And in those words he seemed to sum up perfectly both the intent and the findings of this conference. Though he's a Brit, I think the ancient Greeks would have been proud of him.

To follow the discussion from the conference last week, check out my Facebook posts, the  #greekhealth hashtag on twitter, or comments from @eatsmartbd, @greeneating, @ClimateCounts.

(Disclosure: Kate Geagan is a paid spokesperson for Stonyfield Yogurt.)