Planning to feed a one-planet region

By Dr. Trevor Hancock 

The concept of a one-planet region is simple: We need to reduce our collective impact on the Earth so we — and others around the world — can live within the ecological and physical constraints of this one small planet we all share.

But at the same time, we want to maintain a high quality of life for all, both locally and globally.

When Jennie Moore and Cora Hallsworth determined the ecological footprint of Victoria and Saanich last year, they found, unsurprisingly, that we are consuming well above one planet’s worth of ecosystem goods and services. But what might have been surprising for many is that they found more than 40 per cent of our footprint is related to food; this compares with the 26 per cent of humanity’s overall global footprint that is related to food, according to a 2017 report from the Global Footprint Network.

The extent of the impact of our global food and agriculture system on the Earth is not widely appreciated. But a 2017 study by Michael Clark and David Tilman inEnvironmental Research Letters notes that agricultural activities are the source of between one-quarter and one-third of all greenhouse gases, occupy 40 per cent of Earth’s land surface and account for more than two-thirds of freshwater withdrawals, as well as being a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Moreover, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported in 2014 that 75 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is used for raising animals, and world average meat consumption per person doubled between 1961 and 2011. But meat production is a large contributor to global warming and other environmental problems, with beef being particularly problematic. A 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found beef production has a much larger impact — between five and 28 times as much, depending on the issue — than the average of dairy, poultry, pork and egg production.

In their study of the Victoria and Saanich footprints, Moore and Hallsworth found more than half our food footprint was due to fish, meat and eggs, and another 18 per cent was due to dairy production. So reducing our local footprint means changing our diet. Happily, a 2014 U.K. study found a low-meat diet results in only 65 per cent of the emissions resulting from a high-meat diet.

Two important reports that speak to the issue of food, health and the environment have come out this month. The first is from the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Since 2015, The Lancet — one of the world’s leading medical journals — has drawn attention to the concept of planetary health, because “far-reaching changes to the Earth’s natural systems represent a growing threat to human health.” The Lancet has produced reports on the health impacts of climate change, pollution — and now, diet.

Authored by 37 leading scientists from 16 countries, the report states “food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.” Their prescription is clear: To safeguard both planetary and human health, “global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50 per cent.”

The good news is that “a diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal-source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.” They estimate their diet could prevent about 11 million deaths a year, globally.

Now Health Canada has issued its revised Canada Food Guide, and while not focused on the environmental benefits, it concludes, on health grounds, that we should eat plenty of vegetables and fruits (about half our diet), choose whole-grain foods and eat protein foods — not just lean meat, chicken, fish and eggs, but nuts and seeds, lentils, tofu, yogurt and beans.

I have noted before that a good food policy would be to follow Michael Pollan’s strictures: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” If we are to shift to a one-planet region, we need a one-planet diet, and that means a low-animal-based and high-plant-based diet. The good news is we will be healthier for it, too.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

Originally published in Times Colonist, 27 January 2019

Solstice a timely reminder of our place in the universe

By Dr. Trevor Hancock 

I have never lost the sense of awe I experienced one night as a teenager as I lay down in a dark spot and really looked at the Milky Way. It was overwhelming and humbling to realize what a small part of the galaxy our own seemingly vast solar system is, and what a tiny part of all that I am.

But it also gave me a strong sense of my connectedness to the universe, a sense that has never left me. I can get much the same sense of awe and connection by looking at the immensity of the ocean or a mountain, or the beauty of a butterfly or a flower.

But many people, perhaps most of us these days, have lost that connection — or at least experience it too infrequently. A vivid illustration of our loss of connection comes from Los Angeles, where in 1994, an earthquake knocked out power. According to a subsequent report in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives: “Many anxious residents called local emergency centres to report seeing a strange ‘giant, silvery cloud’ in the dark sky. What they were really seeing — for the first time — was the Milky Way, long obliterated by the urban-sky glow.”

Sadly, this loss of any awareness of the night sky is hardly surprising. The first world atlas of the artificial night sky brightness tells us: “Two-thirds of the U.S. population and more than one-half of the European population have already lost the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye.” But if we can’t see the stars, how do we know our connection to and place in the universe?

At a somewhat smaller scale, how many people realize that we are almost at the midwinter solstice? For that matter, how many pay attention to the midsummer solstice, the spring and fall equinoxes and the phases of the moon? But for most of our history, these have been of immense significance to humans, helping to connect us with the great cycles of nature.

We often forget — or perhaps choose to ignore — that many of our various faith-based celebrations have been superimposed on these much older traditions. Christmas itself is about the birth of a child, the “light of the world,” just as the winter solstice marks the return of the sun and the birth of the new year, while Hanukkah is also a festival of the light. Indeed, the later Romans celebrated Sol Invictus, the birth of the invincible sun, on Dec. 25, thought to be grafted on to an older cult of the sun.

Many of the aspects of our modern celebration of Christmas — bringing green boughs and trees into the house, lighting fires and candles, hanging mistletoe — have their roots in pagan traditions such as yule, and it seems fires and lights were an important part of the celebration of the winter solstice in many cultures.

Other celebrations are related to the lunar calendar. Easter and Passover are tied to the full moon around the time of the spring equinox, while Sukkot (a Jewish harvest festival) and the Christian tradition of harvest festivals are also around the time of the fall equinox. They are reminders that we were once deeply connected to the seasons and the Earth.

But too many people, indeed much of society, have lost touch with nature, which is part of the reason we are in such environmental trouble. Yet while we might imagine that our technology and our cleverness have made us separate from — and even superior to — nature, that is far from the truth. We are as dependent upon nature as we ever were. It is still where all our food, water, air, fuels and materials come from.

If we could but experience that sense of wonder, awe and connection that our ancestors felt — and perhaps some of the fear, too, for nature’s power remains immense — we might treat the Earth with more respect. So take a few moments this week to contemplate the turning of the year. Go out and look at the night sky, admire the ocean and the flowers, because we need more than ever to re-establish our connection with nature. Happy Solstice.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

Originally published in Times Colonist, 16 December 2018

B4H November newsletter


Hello Bridge for Health Cooperative members!

Bridge for Health Cooperative has been undergoing a strategic development planning process, through consulting the Board, committees, industry professionals & mentors, and most importantly, the cooperative members! In doing so, we aim to bring value to our members through strengthened partnerships, increased opportunities, relevant policies & best practices, and regular updates for you – through FacebookTwitterInstagram & our website!

We look forward to continuing our dedicated work and welcome you to get involved, check out some openings here and follow us on our media platforms to stay in the loop.


A Youth Perspective on Proportional Representation

My Experience with First Past the Post

By Marco Zenone

 I have voted in one provincial election (2017) since becoming of legal age. I was ecstatic to vote and be engaged in the democratic process – this was a major milestone. I had completed significant research on the platforms of the major parties and was confident in my voting decision.

On voting day the party I supported received 332,387 votes – or a total of 16.84% of the popular vote. They won 3 seats out of a possible 87. This was the most successful election of this party in the history of their existence.

Although I was happy to see this success – it was disconcerting that although 16.84% of British Columbians voted for this party – they only had about 3% of the legislative voting power. It was more concerning for me that the closest representative I felt I could contact was 147KM away from where I live.

Regardless of your political orientation – this should concern you and is a major flaw of the current first past the post electoral system.

Our previous three governments (2005-2013) had majority governments that did not receive 50% of the popular vote (2005-45.8%, 2009-45.8%, 2013-44.1%). The first past the post system allowed them to pass legislation unopposed – disregarding any opposition from other parties regardless of the validity of their concerns. Parties that were elected to represent those who voted against the majoritarian government based on their needs, values and beliefs.

This is not a system that represents the diversity of voices in British Columbia. We need to ensure all BC residents are adequately represented to inform public policy – regardless if your political beliefs align with the Liberal, NDP, or Green parties. We need proportional representation.

The Benefits of Proportional Representation

Reforming our electoral structure to a system of proportional representation will strengthen our democracy and reflect the needs of BC residents.

Proportional representation will encourage our governments to work collaboratively on public policy – having rich debate that will highlight the context of all BC residents instead of only a certain segment. PR may result in more minority governments and this is not negative – policy that is adequately debated will be better informed and of optimal quality.

Proportional representation will represent everyone fairly –if a party receives 40% of the vote, they will receive 40% of the seats and power – not 100%. All votes cast in an election will be meaningful – regardless of geographic location or which party a person supports.

Proportional representation encourages better and more transparent elections – our current system leads to parties focusing on electoral areas that are considered to be “undecided” – they will present platforms that are appealing to these specific areas to gain seats. Proportional representation will make major political parties focus on pressing issues affecting the entire province.

Proportional representation promotes equality and well-being – when people are confident their democratic engagement can have a real impact they are more likely to participate and advocate for the issues that affect them. Our most underserved and marginalized populations will benefit under proportional representation as their issues and votes are just as important as anybody else.

Closing Thoughts  

I encourage all persons regardless of your political leanings or prior beliefs to read how each system objectively operates.

We know that certain groups – in support or against proportional representation – are advocating aggressively through various forms of ads on social media. This can be effective in influencing our perceptions and we need to be aware of the motivation behind these ads. Question the advertisements you see.

Is their language positive and focusing on increasing democratic engagement – or is it fear mongering? Are they concerned with how this referendum affects everyone in BC – or only certain populations?

I’ve examined each system and questioned the advertisements I’ve seen – I strongly in proportional representation. We can change the way we do government for the betterment of all British Columbians. This referendum is an exceptional opportunity that we do not get often.

Our government has the chance to meaningfully represent all our residents – not only 40% of them.

Loneliness a growing public-health concern

By Dr. Trevor Hancock

It is ironic in this internet age, when everything and everyone seems to be connected, that we seem to be increasingly disconnected and lonely; moreover, many more of us are living alone.

The 2016 census found that the proportion of one-person households has been increasing steadily from 1951 (when it was 7.4 per cent) until 2016, when it became the most common type of household, at 28.2 per cent.

Living alone is not the same thing as being lonely; at various times we probably all want to be alone, and some people like to be alone a lot. But while being alone can be a choice, that is very different from loneliness, which the Oxford Dictionaries define as “sadness because one has no friends or company.”

That kind of being alone is involuntary, and the key word in the definition is sadness, which is only a step or two away from depression. After all, humans are social animals, so while being lonely on occasion is part of being human, chronic social isolation and loneliness are problematic.

In a 2017 report on connection and engagement, the Vancouver Foundation found that “14 per cent of residents say they feel lonely often or almost always” — which is one in seven people. But among people with a household income less than $20,000, more than one in three people are often or almost always lonely, while it is almost one in three of 18-24 year-olds and about one in four of those who are unemployed or are age 25 to 34.

Clearly, loneliness is an issue that affects the young and the poor, not just seniors, although it is often thought of that way.

Indeed, the mental and physical health consequences of loneliness are an emerging public-health concern; the U.K. appointed a ministerial lead on loneliness this year. This was greeted with derision in some quarters, perhaps in part because of a failure to understand both the difference between loneliness and being alone, and the severe health consequences of loneliness.

In his landmark book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connections, the late Dr. John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, described loneliness as “social pain” and “a deeply disruptive hurt” analogous to physical pain. He reported loneliness affects our immune system and our stress hormones, and can lead to suicidal thoughts and other mental and physical health problems.

Even more dramatically, he noted “social isolation has an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity or smoking.” In fact, a 2015 review based on 70 studies from around the world found that, on average, those who reported they were lonely at the beginning of the study were 26 per cent more likely to die — greater than the increased risk of death due to obesity overall, and comparable to the mortality risk for moderate and severe obesity.

If loneliness is largely a lack of social connection, then presumably the answer is to create social connections among those who are lonely or are at risk of being lonely. But it is not that easy, especially among those who are chronically lonely. Cacioppo makes the point that loneliness itself can “create a persistent, self-reinforcing loop of negative thoughts, sensations and behaviours” that make it difficult to reach out or get out and make connections.

In a 2015 article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Cacioppo’s team largely dismissed such seemingly common-sense approaches as providing social support, encouraging social engagement or teaching social skills, commenting that: “Interpersonal contact or communication per se is not sufficient to address chronic loneliness in the general population.” Instead they suggested a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and some hoped-for medication.

I find that completely unsatisfactory, not only because it would be individualized and very expensive, but because with such a large-scale problem we need a population-wide public-health approach, just as we do for smoking or obesity. Clearly, we need to give a lot more thought to how we combat loneliness at a community level and strengthen social connections.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

Originally published in Times Colonist, 19 August 2018

Two BC tools for healthier built environments

By Dr. Trevor Hancock

We are lucky in B.C. to have two useful initiatives to help us create healthier built environment

The first, which I described briefly last week, is the Healthy Built Environment Linkages Toolkit. The second is a B.C. Ministry of Health-funded initiative, PlanH, which “facilitates local government learning, partnership development and planning for healthier communities.” I will describe them both here.

(Full disclosure: PlanH was developed and is implemented on behalf of the ministry by the non-profit B.C. Healthy Communities Society, of which I am vice-chair of the board.)

For each of the five key elements of the built environment that the toolkit considers — neighbourhood design, transportation networks, natural environments, food systems and housing — it provides a chart showing the impact on the built environment and the strongest research correlations found in evidence reviews. I briefly covered the first two elements last week, so here I want to examine the others.

For the natural environment, the focus is on preserving and connecting environmentally sensitive areas, expanding natural elements across the landscape and maximizing the opportunity for everyone to access these natural environments. By doing so, we can increase the tree canopy, reduce urban air pollution and create cooler urban areas. (For a great discussion of the health benefits of trees and urban forests see the book Planet Heart by Dr. Francois Reeves, an interventionist cardiologist in Montreal.)

Among the health benefits identified in the toolkit for which there is strong evidence are reduced deaths from heart and urban heat events; improved mental health and social well-being; increased physical activity; and improved respiratory health. Other benefits include reduced health-care costs, energy savings, reduced pollution-control costs, and increased recreation and tourism.

Turning to food systems, the toolkit focuses on increasing equitable access to affordable and healthy food options, protecting agricultural land, increasing the capacity of local food systems, and supporting community-based food programs such as community gardens and community kitchens.

The health-related impacts of these approaches include improved diet quality and social well-being. Evidence suggests community kitchens, such as the Shelbourne Community Kitchen in Saanich, are particularly useful.

This small NGO provides small-group cooking, a pantry and gardening programs that help participants from low-income families acquire food skills and learn to access nutritious food affordably, while at the same time building community.

Finally, the toolkit looks at four approaches to creating healthy housing, particularly through prioritizing affordable quality housing options, especially for marginalized groups. The evidence supports the need for diverse housing forms and tenure types, located so as to avoid environmental hazards. There are many health benefits, including improved overall health and social well-being and reduced domestic abuse, crime and violence. (I will return to the topic of healthy housing in a future column.)

While the toolkit provides evidence and is intended primarily for planners, PlanH is more concerned with how to bring the health implications of decisions to the attention of municipal governments and citizens to support “leading-edge practices for collaborative local action.” It focuses on three key interconnected themes: Healthy people, a healthy society and healthy environments.

In considering healthy people, PlanH emphasizes that our health behaviours and choices are shaped by local social and environmental conditions. We need to create “vibrant places and spaces [that] cultivate belonging, inclusion, connectedness and engagement” in the context of “well-planned built environments and sustainable natural environments.”

To do so, PlanH helps local governments and their citizens learn about these issues and provides action guides and other practical resources and tools. It helps them connect and build relationships with community partners in other sectors (including regional health authorities) and with other local governments. And it helps them innovate with a funding program to support action, and by sharing success stories from around B.C. and beyond.

Together, these two initiatives give municipal governments, urban planners and citizens powerful support to help them make decisions that will improve health and well-being, which is surely one of their most important roles. So if you want healthier built environments in which to lead your life, raise a family and grow old, you might want to talk to your local government, community association and neighbours about the toolkit and PlanH.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

Originally published in Times Colonist, 29 July 2018