Experts: Congress must treat poor nutrition, climate change, and biodiversity loss as interconnected

Addressing the interlinked crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and diet-related disease will require coordinated action, systems thinking, and much more public funding, a panel of scientists, farmers, and advocates told Congress on Wednesday.

“Our current food system is savagely broken,” said Sen. Cory Booker, who co-hosted the briefing. “It’s broken for family farmers. It’s broken for food system workers. It’s broken for rural communities, and it’s broken for our planet.”

Booker noted that poor nutrition kills half a million Americans each year, with low-income people, rural residents, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups disproportionately affected. The food system also has enormous climate impacts, accounting for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. And it drives biodiversity loss, the culprit in up to 80 percent of species extinctions to date, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Against that backdrop, Booker said, “Generating cutting-edge science at the intersection of nutrition and sustainability is a critical priority for the nation.”

This field — called sustainable nutrition science — is severely underfunded, said Sarah Reinhardt, a senior analyst for food systems and health at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Between 2016 and 2019, the federal government spent just $16 million per year on sustainable nutrition science, according to a recent report she authored. That translates to less than 25 cents out of every $1,000 spent on research.

The report recommended tripling funding for sustainable nutrition science, to a minimum of $50 million a year. But Reinhardt said there are “heartening” signs that the USDA and other federal agencies are moving from a siloed approach that addresses issues like nutrition, food production, and the environment separately to a more systematic approach.

One example is a USDA program to boost research into sustainable agriculture systems. Brandy E. Phipps, a professor of food, nutrition, and health at Central State University in Ohio, received funding through the program last year for a project to explore using hemp as an aquaculture feed. The project seeks not only to find more sustainable ways to raise nutritious food but also to promote equity. Central State, a historically Black university, is partnering with the College of Menominee Nation in Wisconsin on the project, which will train Native American and African American students in agricultural fields where they are underrepresented while also helping to build tribal food sovereignty. “Our team had a vision addressing multiple components of the value chain system, from the environment to producers to consumers,” Phipps said.

Projects like these are “a bull’s-eye for sustainable nutrition science,” Reinhardt said. Still, she emphasized the need to institutionalize programs and funding mechanisms that will support more of this research over the long term. “The bottom line is that the public health burdens of diet-related disease, climate impacts, and associated health disparities are not going away anytime soon,” she said. “In fact, they’re likely to get worse and cost us more if we don’t have a coordinated strategy and approach to research that can help us address them simultaneously.”