Regeneration and nutrition: an interview with Anthony Fardet

Author: Anthony Fardet, RSF Scientific Commitee member  and researcher at INRAE in preventive, sustainable and holistic diets. 

  • How would you define regeneration and what are some key aspects behind this concept?

The central point is the contrast between regeneration and extraction with a specific focus on the concepts of resilience, as a long-term goal and an intrinsic characteristic of the state of equilibrium regeneration aims at, and the importance of a multidimensional approach in achieving it.

In terms of this multidimensional approach the importance of biodiversity cannot be understated, and aiming for its restoration is an imperative, especially for those that are looking at regeneration from a food system point of view. A very good definition is the one proposed by Anderson and Guadalupe Rivera Ferre“Regenerative narratives focus on activities and imaginaries that can restore or enhance, rather than just sustain, communities and ecosystems (human, social, physical, natural capital) eroded by decades of implementation of extractive narratives.  Furthermore, food systems based in these narratives satisfy Speranza et al.’s indicators of livelihood resilience (Self-organization, buffer capacity and capacity for learning)”

  • What is an overlooked but important aspect in the discussion between food systems and regeneration/sustainability?

An important topic to consider when thinking about sustainability and regeneration and the food system is the impact of food processing, often we focus obsessively on the degree of responsibility of upstream and downstream actors we forget how the structure of the food system itself and the degree of food processing that it requires is a strong driver in both directions. Ultra-processed food (UPF) in particular can be extremely damaging for environmental, social, and socio-economical sustainability, all the processes behind this philosophy are very far from regeneration or sustainability.

  • Due to the aftermath of the green revolution of the 1960s, which witnessed a significant surge in agricultural production, the issue of productivity became a central point in the discussion regarding the food system. Are the alternatives to these industrial practices that seem to be the only ones capable of these great yields?

There is much evidence on how organic agriculture in theory can feed 10 billion people while simultaneously regenerating the soil. At the moment these yields are not possible from non-industrial practices due to the poor quality of the soil, but in the long term regeneration can be a valid alternative. Modelling and simulation studies conducted at the European level bolster this claim, demonstrating the feasibility of feeding the entire continent without reliance on imports through the adoption of agroecology.

Moreover, focusing on a drastic reduction in animal-based food consumption, allowing for the retention of some animals solely on lands deemed unsuitable for other agricultural purposes is another important aspect. This model would correspond to a flexitarian diet and suggests the conclusion that the optimal farm model is a medium-sized extensive mixed crops livestock system. Remarkably, South Korea illustrates the viability of this model, with an increasing number of agricultural practitioners transitioning towards it, finding synergy with agroecology. Notably, this transition is accompanied by a rise in salaries, indicating the economic viability and sustainability of such practices.

  • What are the characteristics of a sustainable food system and how can we decline it to specific realities?

In 2013 we conducted an interrogation on the food system and its impact on global health, that highlighted several critical dimensions: food diversity, the balance between animal and plant consumption, and the importance of consuming non-ultra-processed foods. These dimensions provide a framework for research that starts from a global perspective and then drills down into specific regions and cultural habits.

When considering how to apply these dimensions locally, it’s essential to take into account the unique dietary patterns and preferences of different regions and cultures. We need to acknowledge how there will not necessarily be a solution applicable on a global scale. An heterogeneity of solutions, specific for the region they will be implemented in is probably a more realistic and feasible approach. For instance, in densely populated regions like Egypt, where agricultural land is limited, relying solely on locally produced plant-based foods to feed the entire population may not be feasible. In such cases, questions arise about the feasibility and sustainability of importing organic foods to meet dietary needs. 

Soon, because of climate change half of the human population might be at risk of food insecurity and our reliance on conventional, internationally sourced, and non-organic foods may exacerbate these risks. Thus, there’s a pressing need to reassess and rebalance our food systems towards more sustainable and organic practices. The development of guidelines, such as the “3V rules“,  Végétal (plant), Vrai (real) and Varié (varied, if possible organic, local and seasonal), which are based on 8 different protective diets and various scenarios for 2050, offers a starting point for this recalibration. Engaging with multiple stakeholders, including institutions and organisations involved in food production, distribution, and policy-making, is crucial for implementing these changes effectively and ensuring they align with local contexts and needs.

  • How can we combine empirico-inductive and hypothetico-deductive methods in food science and nutrition research to address the shortcomings of a food system designed without consideration of its impacts on climate change and its effects on environmental degradation?

The strong tendency to move from an empirical-inductive and holistic to an hypothetico-deductive and ultra-reductionist scientific approach has been a prevalent issue in our approach to understanding the food system. One significant mistake has been the oversimplification and generalisation of what constitutes healthy food and diet, i.e., based only on nutrient equilibrium and fulfilling one’s nutritional needs (which is insufficient to stay healthy). The power of using empirico-inductive approaches can be seen in the genesis and proposal of the 3V rule, which represents a departure from an exclusive (ultra)reductionist mindset, and has led to the generation of new unifying and holistic hypotheses, paradigms and concepts. Empirico-inductive processes are holistic by nature and can create new hypotheses that we can thereafter explore with more reductionist experiments according to an hypothetico-deductive research experiment, but only when it is truly necessary to nurture the initial holistic thinking. This is a philosophical approach to science that nonetheless highlights some important aspects for the fight against climate change. What we’re doing today is to use reductionist thinking to address these issues and focus on single aspects of the problem at a time. An example of this approach can be seen with Nutriscore, a tool developed to theoretically promote healthier food items which has clear shortcomings such as not penalising UPFs, exemplifies the need for systemic changes, and avoiding siloed solutions (i.e., often named “magic bullets”) that generally lead to greenwashing. Interventions are most effective when implemented comprehensively, addressing first the entire food system at once. 

  • What is the role of experiments and real word data in these types of approaches?

Experiments are and will always be essential to give credence to any given theory. What is important is to keep in mind how generalizable the results of the experiments are and remember how experiments as well are actually generally based on a reductionist, hyothetico-deductive, limited approach carried out in generally controlled conditions. What they should deliver is cumulative scientific evidence to support the initial holistic theory. If not, the initial theory may be improved, incremented, or even rejected. Experiments in agriculture are among the most difficult to estimate, since the multiple agricultural conditions you can find in the world make scalability and generalizability extremely challenging. One of the benefits of recommendations similar to the 3V rules is that since it identifies generic dimensions that characterise the human diet-global health relationship rather than prescribing a diet is easier to adapt regardless of the local conditions (i.e., local pedo-climatic conditions, culinary traditions, religious beliefs..), leading to localised and specific 3V-based diets.

  • What is your opinion on guaranteeing that a diet will be not only sustainable but also affordable?

We actually did a study in 122 French hypermarkets (Auchan) and observed how a cart of food that followed the 3V rules was just as expensive as a food cart rich in animal products and in UPF, thus even in a hypermarket it is possible to easily follow these guidelines. The price, however, is different in case of organic food, which tends to cost more.

  • On which level should we act to promote a sustainable and healthy way of eating?

To catalyse change, concerted action must occur on multiple fronts:

1. Policy, Industry, and Research: Despite the sluggish pace, policymakers, agro-food industry players, and researchers must collaborate to drive a courageous systemic change.

2. Retailers and Society: The restructuring of food retail spaces, aligning with the NOVA classification system, presents a tangible step forward. Furthermore, taxing products based on the number of their markers of ultra-processing (MUPs)  content, with higher UPF markers incurring greater environmental penalties, can incentivize sustainability. Crucially, marketing UPF to children should be strictly prohibited, considering that a staggering 89% of advertisements for children’s food promote UPF in France.

3. Education: Empowering individuals through food education is pivotal to implement long lasting change. By reshaping perceptions and behaviours, we can foster a generation of informed consumers, fighting against ignorance. We are currently leading a European food behaviour living lab for children up to the age of 15 and the initial findings underscore the influential role of emotions in shaping dietary choices, but also the too strong influence of the macro- (food system structuration) and meso- (food environments) levels to the detriment of the micro-level (factors linked to the individuals for their choices) for children.

  • Cereals are the cornerstone of most diets but most of the cereals we consume are from a small number of varieties and cultivated in unsustainable monocultures. How should we redesign this sector?

We should move from a reductionist view on cereals to a more holistic one. Rather than refining cereals excessively, the focus should shift towards less refined options like brown rice. Exploring fermentation, sprouting, and soft extrusion such as in pasta (excluding extrusion cooking) can unlock new dimensions of nutritional value. Additionally, reintroducing ancient rice varieties, resilient against floods like certain ancient Indian variants, holds promise. Combining legumes with pasta and utilising minimally-processed cereals as a vehicle for innovative alternatives represent further avenues for exploration. In essence, transforming our food system demands a comprehensive approach-one that transcends reductionism, embraces non-siloed and holistic innovations, and prioritises sustainability and health in equal measure.

Photo credits: Markus Spiske