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EAT forum – an ambitious, interdisciplinary meeting focused on healthy and sustainable food systems and diets

June 4, 2014
Marie Persson

The Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) participated in the recently organised EAT Forum in Stockholm. This initiative, founded by the Stordalen foundation in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre  is intended to be a major annual event in which science, policy and business stakeholders from all over the world come together to help set goals and guidelines for a more sustainable and healthier food future.

The very first EAT Forum kicked off on the 26-27 May 2014. The FCRN is one of the Forum’s strategic partners.

 Bill Clinton and Richard Horton during the first day of EAT forum (Photo: Marie Persson)

 Over the course of two days, around 500 representatives from academia, business, NGOs, UN-organisations and the philanthropic community gathered with the ambition of taking a holistic approach to food system sustainability issues. The participation of global leaders such as Bill Clinton, Richard Horton (The Lancet), Peter Bakker (WBCSD - World Business Council for Sustainable Development), David Nabarro (UN special representative on Food Security and Nutrition) and Michiel Bakker (Director, Global Food Services, Google) indicated the high ambition level - the intention being to galvanize support for healthy sustainable food systems and diets through a global coalition.



The so called double triple helix (image) approach was presented on the first day and set the stage for the discussions and talks to come: How do we engage and bridge sectorial and disciplinary silos between science, politics and business to create a food system that is sensitive to both health, sustainability and climate goals? 

The need to link sustainable food systems to the global goals of reducing hunger and improving nutrition was a strong focus. Talks from Professor Christopher J.L. Murray from IHME Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and Professor Hans Rosling from Karolinska Institutet and Gapminder, highlighted the importance of using statistics on nutrition and health to show their relation to diets (see  many of the models highlighted on the IHME website). Murray presented links between overconsumption of meat and animal products and the growth of cardiovascular diseases.

The Forum made a point of including business as part of the solution and not just part of the problem but there was some disagreement on the degree to which businesses are able to be honest, self-motivated partners. Representatives from food companies Lerøy Seafood Group and Max hamburgers argued that consumer pressure is the most powerful incentive for businesses to change in more sustainable directions. Peter Bakker from the World Council of Business for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) highlighted the importance of getting business on board but was very frank concerning their self-regulatory power. “CSR is dead” he said, further arguing that there is a misconception from the policy community that businesses do not want regulation. Bakker said capitalism does not create the necessary incentives for incorporating externalities and creating more sustainable business models. One question that remained unanswered, was whether large-scale, global initiatives can and should involve both civil society and the global food industry, given the controversial role of industry in contributing to unhealthy food choices through intense marketing schemes and lobbying. 

Many speakers echoed the need for food industry regulation and policy-driven incentives. Professor Tim Lang placed strong emphasis on the need for policy to enable consumers to make the right choices and for implementation of sustainable dietary guidelines at local, regional and global levels (view Lang’s talk here). Richard Horton (The Lancet) addressed what he referred to as the false dichotomy between freedom and regulation:

What is the freedom we’re talking about here? The freedom not to have full information about the choices you make in your life? The freedom to have multinational food corporations putting health at the bottom of their list of priorities and putting profit above health? The freedom to live in an environment where you will find yourself making choices that will curtail the number of years of healthy life lived? Those aren’t freedoms. Those are restrictions. We are here to maximize the facility of societies to tackle the forces that curtail our freedoms”

Tristram Stuart from Feeding 5k discussed the business case for sustainable food. He argued that in the UK profits can be made by focusing on reducing food waste, and that “ugly fruit and vegetables” are now the fastest growing produce segment in the UK. Nordic Choice Hotels representative Cathrine Dehli pointed out that their hotel chain had reduced food waste by 20%, just by reducing the plate size in their breakfast buffets from 24 to 21 cm. Professor Brian Wansink from Cornell University highlighted the potential of ‘nudge’ type approaches: in one of his school cafeteria-based interventions children’s fresh fruit consumption increased by 140% simply by placing fruits strategically in the cafeteria in a nice bowl. A video from this project can be seen here.    

One of the few representatives from the farming sector at the forum was Dyborn Charlie Chibonga from the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi (NASFAM). He emphasised sustainable agriculture as a priority for Africa and highlighted the links between food insecurity and current trends of underinvestment, poor policies and incoherent strategies in agriculture. There is a need, he said, to mobilse smallholder farmers into cohesive groups, integrate them in value chains, increase agricultural investments and strengthen public and private partnerships as steps towards more sustainable agriculture.

Professor Walter Willett from Harvard School of Public Health and Greg Drescher from The Culinary Institute of America (CIA)‘s “Menus for change” initiative considered how diets could be made both healthier and more sustainable. Their advice focused on the need to change our sources of protein and make food with less meat more appealing. The recommendations can be summarized as: plant-based proteins, unsaturated oils, whole grains and lots of different fruits and vegetables. Greg Drescher, gave an example of how lower meat intakes might be enabled: by introducing meatballs composed by 50% meat and 50% mushrooms – these turned out to be more popular than the normal ones. For more on sustainable healthy diets see the FCRN’s recent work, including discussion papers and presentations from our workshop on the issue.

David Nabarro, UN special representative on Food Security and Nutrition, said that the Forum could potentially help build a new interdisciplinary movement around the food, health and climate nexus: “The EAT forum has the potential to become truly transformational and can become a movement and catalyst for change”. Governments are now seeing the importance of questioning siloed approaches to development (as happened with the MDGs) and he suggested some practical next steps for the new movement: 1) Connect and combine science with emotions, 2) Bridge silos, 3) Widen the critical mass and engage with new forces -outside our compartments, and 4) Learn how to frame the issues in terms of linkages and benefits of a holistic approach.

Johan Rockström, chair of the EAT Advisory Board, summing up, emphasised the Forum’s interdisciplinarity as a key achievement. He focused on the need to engage in partnerships and collective efforts and to be honest about complexities and trade-offs. He challenged EAT Forum participants to focus on narratives where food consumers are seen as heroes and not victims and said that future EAT discussions should also be focused on translating ecological sustainability into dietary benefits. He also announced a new partnership between the EAT organisers and the new Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation – together they are creating an 'International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems'. More can be found in Rockström’s Guardian blog.  

The EAT forum also received video addresses from Margaret Chan from WHO and HRH Prince Charles. For recordings from the forum, see here and for highlights including summaries and list of participants, see here.  You can also read another blog from SIANI, on day 1 here and day 2 here. For a recap from online twitter discussions see the hashtag #EATforum on twitter.

Thanks to William Heisel for this Richard Horton quote from his EAT forum recap “Balanced Diet: Rethinking the debate on regulating junk food” on the Reporting on Health website.



Raghavendra Guru Srinivasan's picture
Submitted by Raghavendra Gur... (not verified) on

Please could you let us know about the future plans of EAT Forum.  We are also looking for opportunities to engage with eat forum.  Thank you very much.

MariePersson's picture
Submitted by MariePersson (not verified) on

Next years forum will be held in Stockholm 1-2 June, 2015. It is organised by Stordalen foundation and Stockholm Resilience Center. More information will probably be presented on their website 

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