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Preventing the Mediterranean diet from vanishing into the sea

New report explores effects of lifestyle changes, globalization on world’s model diet

Photo: ©FAO/Ami Vitale
The Mediterranean diet’s focus on vegetable oil, cereals, vegetables and pulses, and moderate intake of fish and meat, has long been associated with long and healthy living.

11 June 2015, Milan - The Mediterranean region is undergoing a "nutrition transition" away from an ancient diet long considered a model for healthy living and sustainable food systems, that preserve the environment and empower local producers.

A new report by FAO and the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies (CIHEAM) presented at EXPO Milano today traces the negative effects of shifting diet patterns across the Mediterranean and calls for an action program to support more sustainable diets across the region

Globalization, food marketing and changing lifestyles - including changes in the roles women play in society - are altering consumption patterns in the Mediterranean, away from fruits and legumes towards more meat and dairy products, according to the report.

While Southern Mediterranean countries continue to struggle with undernutrition, countries throughout the region increasingly struggle with obesity and overweight.

At the same time, the region as a whole is seeing a rise in chronic diet-based diseases that increasingly lead to disability and death.

Undernutrition is still a significant problem in the southern Mediterranean, as is stunting -- low height for age -- among children under five years of age in both southern and eastern Mediterranean countries.

Today's report presentation was part of Feeding Knowledge, the EXPO program for cooperation on research and innovation on food security.

A model diet, a changing landscape

The Mediterranean diet's focus on vegetable oil, cereals, vegetables and pulses, and moderate intake of fish and meat, has long been associated with long and healthy living. Because it is largely plant-based, the diet is comparatively light on the environment, requiring fewer natural resources than animal production.

"The Mediterranean diet is nutritious, integrated in local cultures, environmentally sustainable and it supports local economies," said Alexandre Meybeck, Coordinator of FAO's Sustainable Food Systems Program. "This is why it's essential that we continue to promote and support it."

But with products being increasingly sourced from outside the region and diverse local landscapes being transformed by monoculture production, traditional food systems are affected by these shifting dietary habits.

Estimates suggest that today only 10 percent of traditional local crop varieties are still being cultivated across the region, with a wide variety of traditional crops having been replaced by a limited number of improved non-native crops.

Tourism, urban development, depletion of natural resources and a loss of traditional knowledge all contribute to a rapid diminishing of genetic diversity in crops and animal breeds across the Mediterranean, the report warns.

Action needed

Policy makers, researchers and the food industry need to increase collaboration to better understand food systems and trends, the report says.

More attention needs to be paid to increasing food consumption and production in ways that preserve local resources and knowledge.

And awareness campaigns are needed to drive up consumer demand for traditional Mediterranean products, with an eye on better integrating current food trends and consumer habits with the use of local products across the region.

In support of such goals, CIHEAM today issued the Med Diet EXPO Call to action, calling for efforts to preserve Mediterranean agro-ecosystems, make the region's food systems more sustainable, and ensure food security and nutrition for a growing population.

Together towards more  sustainable food systems

 FAO and CIHEAM - a group of 13 countries cooperating in the fields of agriculture, food, fisheries and rural territories in the Mediterranean -- are jointly working to increase international understanding of how to make Mediterranean diets more sustainable.

The collaboration aims to develop local case studies on ways to increase production sustainably and promote adherence to traditional diet patterns.

Today's report also calls for a three-year pilot project in CIHEAM countries, to be developed together with FAO, along with special guidelines for improving the sustainability of diets in the Mediterranean.

It is the product of collaboration between CIHEAM and the FAO/UNEP Sustainable Food Systems Program.

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