Popular Science: Sustainable Nutrition Scientific Board /1 – the holistic approach of the Marseilles IUCN Congress

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Article published by Popular Science


How can we guarantee sufficient and healthy food to a population that will reach 10 billion people by 2050? To answer this question, an international pool of interconnected and complementary subjects like environmental sciences, nutrition, epidemiology and public health, was created in 2020. The Sustainable Nutrition Scientific Board (SNSB), headed by Prof. Mario Rasetti of the ISI Foundation of Turin, has a three-year mandate to develop a new scientific research branch defined by holistic and innovative methodological approaches that combine Big Data analysis, complex science, and artificial intelligence.

The SNSB puts forward a systemic approach that leaves clichés behind in favor of a better analysis and understanding of some of the least well-known dynamics in health, nutrition, and sustainable development.

According to SNSB, both nutrition and sustainability have long been thought of as separate subjects independent of each other, with little attention to the systemic effects of food production and consumption on health, environment, and socio-economic dynamics. As explained by professor Yamir Moreno, physicist of the University of Zaragoza and among the world’s leading experts on complex system and biocomputing, current nutritional recommendations have not been effective in improving public health due to the lack of available environmental, socio-demographic and food composition data. The solution relies on improved data collection and analysis and on a multidisciplinary approach that correctly interprets causal relations between complex variables with the help of advanced tools of mathematical analysis.

Sustainable nutrition policies require systematic impact evaluation

Professor Olivier Jolliet, public health lecturer at the University of Michigan, believes that achieving substantial progress in sustainable nutrition requires solutions that marry sustainability and human health, strengthened analysis of the performance of single nutrients and their substitutes within different eating patterns, and the use of big data from across the world (environmental impacts’ lifecycle, nutritional surveys…) and of complex decision-making models like Random Forest.

The Sustainable Nutrition Scientific Board points toward an innovation in the way we think about the relationship between man and nature, so that we may deliver well-rounded analyses shaping new sustainable and healthy nutrition policies while debunking false myths that have previously influenced public opinion and law-makers.

Take, for example, the case of vegetable oils and saturated fats, which will be developed in further detail in an upcoming article. It is often believed that they are the root cause behind the increasing numbers of people affected by cardiovascular diseases, but the issue, for the SNSB experts, is much more complex than it seems, with scientific evidence suggesting an urgent revision of current international nutrition guidelines. If the impact of vegetable oils on health remains a debated topic, its consequences on the environment are even more so.

Professor Erik Meijaard, director of Borneo Futures and lecturer at the University of Queensland, has highlighted how negative externalities from oil plantations on the environment and biodiversity are well-known when it comes to perennial crops like oil palm, but much more obscure in the case of seasonal crops like soy, sunflower, and rapeseed.

It is precisely to address these controversies that the first research project by SNSB will focus on vegetable oils and their effects on nutrition, health, environment, and sustainable development. The same methodological approach will then be applied to the study of other nutrients in the coming years.

“Our world is facing stormy times that have taught something to each of us. The social issues that have been heightened by the pandemic remind us about the importance of fostering innovation and rethinking the way we tackle many issues – says Professor Rasetti, chair of the SNSB – Our ambition is to find feasible solutions to provide sufficient energy and nutrients to keep the world population in good health, while limiting the consumption of natural and social resources.”

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