Towards sustainable diets in Finland

2024-06-19 Xavier Irz
© Just food

There is now a strong scientific consensus that the global food system is fundamentally unsustainable because it operates beyond planetary boundaries1 and produces negative nutritional outcomes2. Addressing this situation requires what the EAT-Lancet Commission calls a ‘Great Food Transformation’3, which includes population-level dietary change as a central pillar.

However, the practical identification of sustainable dietary changes is fraught with difficulties. As appealing as the saying “healthy for you, healthy for the planet” may be, it remains a slogan with limited validity – for instance junk foods often have relatively low environmental impact, and there are legitimate concerns that environmental preoccupations may generate “pudding vegetarians” adopting plant-based diets of low quality.

Much of the literature on sustainable diets also ignores the cultural dimension of dietary choices, their economic implications, as well as the importance of national or regional contexts.

Against this background, the Just food project investigated the properties of climate friendly and nutritionally adequate diets in Finland. The results have recently been published in two peer-reviewed articles4,5 from which several conclusions follow.

“Dietary change should be central to the sustainability transition of the Finnish food system.”

Starting with the good news, we found that nutritious diets with a reduced climate impact could easily be obtained by combining the foods currently supplied by the Finnish food system, and that those diets could be very cheap. Simultaneous health and environmental benefits could be achieved by the substitution of meat with cereals, potatoes and roots and the intra-category substitution of foods, such as beef with poultry within the meat category.

A one third reduction in climate impact is compatible with flexitarian and healthy dietary patterns that still include significant consumption of animal products, particularly dairy.

The research also found that sustainable dietary changes were largely similar across socio-demographic groups identified by level of income or education and did not raise acute equity issues. Hence, altogether, reducing the climate footprint of diets could generate side benefits in terms of nutrition and affordability, which confirms that dietary change should be central to the sustainability transition of the Finnish food system.

“The main barriers to the adoption of more sustainable diets in Finland are not economic but cultural.”

At the same time, the results also established that low cost, climate friendly and nutritionally adequate diets could only be achieved by sacrificing diet diversity or other factors conducive to cultural acceptability. The main barriers to the adoption of more sustainable diets in Finland are not economic but cultural, and more attention should therefore be paid to related issues, including the taste, convenience and social meaning of diets.

As an example, too little is known about the potential of plant-based meat substitutes to reduce the hedonic/taste costs of dietary changes, or the negative stigma associated with the adoption of plant-based diets6,7. At a research and policy level, more collaboration among social scientists, nutritionists, economists and environmental scientists is required to design and implement effective measures for sustainable dietary changes.

Xavier Irz is professor of agricultural economics at the University of Helsinki and associate researcher at the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke). He is interested in the economics of sustainable food systems.

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  1. Campbell BM, Beare DJ, Bennett EM et al. (2017) Agriculture production as a major driver of the earth system exceeding planetary boundaries. Ecol Soc 22, 8.
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, World Health Organisation (2019) Sustainable Healthy Diets – Guiding Principles. Rome, Italy: FAO.
  3. Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B et al. (2019) Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 393, 447–492.
  4. Irz, X., Tapanainen, H., Saarinen, M., Salminen, J., Sares-Jäske, L., & Valsta, L. M. (2024). Reducing the carbon footprint of diets across socio-demographic groups in Finland: a mathematical optimisation study. Public Health Nutrition, 27(1), e98.
  5. Irz, X., Sares-Jäske, L., Tapanainen, H., Niemi, J., Paalanen, L., Saarinen, M., & Valsta, L. M. (2024). Assessing the Cost of Nutritionally Adequate and Low-Climate Impact Diets in Finland. Current Developments in Nutrition, 102151.
  6. Markowski, K. L. & Roxburgh, S. “If I became a vegan, my family and friends would hate me:” Anticipating vegan stigma as a barrier to plant-based diets. Appetite 135, (2019).
  7. Arpinon, T. The social cost of adopting a plant-based diet. Available SSRN 4604972 (2023).
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