Dal researcher helps lead development of handbook exploring how to feed the world's growing population

- July 4, 2022

Feeding a growing population, sustainably, creatively and efficiently will require innovations across our food systems, says Dal researcher Kathleen Kevany.
Feeding a growing population, sustainably, creatively and efficiently will require innovations across our food systems, says Dal researcher Kathleen Kevany.

A Dal researcher whose work centres on sustainable diets, well-being, and systems analysis is currently helping lead the creation of a definitive guide on sustainable diets.

Kathleen Kevany, an associate professor and director of Rural Research Collaborative with Dal's Faculty of Agriculture, is co-editor of the first edition of the Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Diets (along with researcher Paolo Prosperi). The guide is due out next year. 

Dr. Kevany brings a wealth of academic expertise and experience in food policy development to her work. She sits on advisory boards for Canadian Food Studies and the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, serves as president of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, and was editor and co-author of Plant-based Diets for Succulence and Sustainability (2020). 

Dr. Kevany shares insights below on the future of food and sustainability.

Q: How will we feed the growing population by 2050?

A: Modern food systems, along with traditional farming practices, are producing more and more food for a growing population. The Ontario campaign, “Farmers Feed Cities” worked to educate consumers about their food and their farmers. A new campaign, “Good in every Grain” seeks to shine light on the benefits from this agriculture. To feed more people, we must plan for more food with fewer resources and less adverse impacts. Foods with higher nutrition and greater efficiencies should be prioritized.

Q: What needs to change to make this possible?

A: To assess how well our food production and consumption policies and practices are meeting human and planetary needs, we require an understanding of systems analysis. Insufficient attention has been placed on the mounting undesirable health, environment, and social concerns associated with our food systems.

With increasing fluctuations in climate, we are seeing devastating floods, heatwaves, droughts, and other impacts that reduce yields, increase food prices, cost lives, and damage ecosystems. Global targets of no more than an average 1.5°C increase in global temperatures over pre-industrial levels will not be possible without significant changes to our food systems, including reducing meat and dairy consumption.

The prominence of animal products in Western dietary patterns has been identified as a significant driver of global warming. Other environmental problems to which animal agriculture contributes include deforestation, habitat and biodiversity loss, environmental and soil degradation, and ocean dead zones. Climate impacts on human, animal, and planetary health are going to intensify. 

Food is being grown and produced for human satisfaction and nourishment. Assessing how well nourished we are, is an important question to consider. The increasing consumption of dairy, red, and processed meats has been shown to be a primary driver of non-communicable diseases, such as obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer.

Increasingly, plant-based proteins are being proposed as valuable alternatives to animal-based proteins. Consumption of the whole, plant-based foods for protein, vital nutrients including fibre, aids the body in digesting these proteins and with eliminating waste more effectively from the digestion track. Plant-proteins also serve to lower LDL cholesterol which is linked to lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is very interesting, especially when considering that coronary heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada. Due to the lower caloric density of plant-based protein, mainly due to the low-fat content and high fiber contend, plant-based proteins are known to cause weight loss.

Q: How and in what way can we become more sustainable – now and in the future?

A: Based on the best available evidence, Health Canada introduced Canada’s Food Guide in 2019, which emphasizes diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, and low in sodium, red meat, dairy, meat, sweetened beverages, and trans-fats.

Reports are accumulating around the benefits that a largely plant diet confer. The famed EAT Lancet report calls for largely westernized diets to reduce, in half, their animal consumption and increase by more than 200 per cent the consumption of fruit and vegetables.  Canadians must also become far more conscious of food waste and learn to prevent and avert such waste.

Applying these findings can help feed more people effectively, efficiently, and equitably. Accelerating the adoption of such guidelines seems to be a rational policy priority, as they also reduce dietary risks associated with disease, premature death, and disability, while emitting less greenhouse gas emissions and lessen environmental impacts. In these critical times, researchers, practitioners, and educators must be prepared to assess food systems and modify approaches that undermine socio-ecological sustainability.

Improving food systems literacy, including nutritional knowledge and the ability to apply this knowledge can help to advance a variety of social goals. It is connected to improving human health and reducing disease, reducing global warming and improving sustainability. Policy makers, producers, processors, retailers, and consumers all have roles to fill in fostering more sustainable food systems.

Q: What role does animal agriculture play in feeding this growing population?

A: Farmers, ranchers, landowners, and food producers play significant roles in providing important social and environmental goods and services.

Protecting lands, maintaining woodlots, conserving bio-diversity and maximizing water are some of the valued contributions from agriculture, in addition to food production. Animal food products that contribute to feeding a growing population, protecting planetary systems, and meeting consumer standards for animal welfare, will be those most supported by policy makers and investors.

These practices need to be assessed through more fulsome measures of the footprint, including the broad impacts, of animal agriculture. Animal agriculture that will play the biggest roles in the decades ahead are those that involve agro-ecology, silvopasture, regenerative agriculture, conservation agriculture, composting, and organic approaches. All these strategies provide substantial economic return, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and offer other environmental benefits. Tree intercropping as well as measures around nutrient management, also are critical contributors to more sustainable food production systems.

Feeding a growing population, sustainably, creatively and efficiently will require innovations across our food systems. Food producers are at the centre of this role, and we look to them for leadership and thank them for their contributions in nourishing the world.


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