Nurturing Change: Insights from the UCD PLAN'EAT Living Lab Spring Festival

Image Credit: jplenio, pixabay

Neha Natu offers a glimpse into the UCD PLAN'EAT Living Lab Spring Festival, where sustainability, innovation, and inspiration converge in a dynamic tapestry of ideas and action.

In a world increasingly concerned about sustainability and health, initiatives that merge research with real-world action are invaluable. The UCD PLAN'EAT Living Lab stands as a beacon of such endeavours, aiming not only to understand but to actively transform dietary behaviours towards healthier and more sustainable choices among students. Recently, I had the privilege of attending their Spring Festival, an event that showcased their innovative approach and collaborative spirit. The Spring Festival served as a microcosm of this collaborative ethos. Popups from vintage stores to UCD Bikes, the event offered a diverse array of activities designed to educate and inspire.

The UCD PLAN'EAT Living Lab is more than just a research project; it's a dynamic initiative that seeks to engage students directly in the process of shaping their dietary habits. Rather than dictating mandates from above, the team adopts a co-creation approach, working hand in hand with students to develop strategies that are both evidence-informed and acceptable to the student body. At the heart of PLAN'EAT lies a commitment to marrying top-down insights with bottom-up initiatives. This holistic approach recognizes the importance of understanding the unique perspectives and preferences of students while leveraging scientific evidence to inform interventions. By doing so, they aim to catalyse a meaningful shift in dietary behaviour—one that is not only sustainable but also enjoyable and fulfilling for students. Central to the UCD PLAN'EAT Living Lab is its connection to Horizon Europe, a research project funded by the European Commission. This partnership underscores the global significance of their work and provides access to resources and expertise that can drive meaningful impact. With a duration of four years, the project is poised to make significant strides in transforming food systems and environments towards healthier and more sustainable practices.

Keynote speaker Eoghan Dalton cast a spellbinding aura over the UCD PLAN'EAT Living Lab Spring Festival with his captivating tale of rewilding a 73-acre farm on the rugged Beara peninsula in West Cork. A farmer, activist, author, and sculptor, Dalton is at the forefront of a rewilding movement aiming to restore Ireland's native forests, which have dwindled to a mere 1% of the land, a stark contrast to the 80% coverage they once boasted.

A farmer, activist, author, and sculptor, Dalton is at the forefront of a rewilding movement aiming to restore Ireland's native forests, which have dwindled to a mere 1% of the land, a stark contrast to the 80% coverage they once boasted.

Dalton's journey began with a simple yet ambitious vision—to purchase a patch of land and nurture native trees into a thriving forest. What he encountered exceeded his wildest dreams. The deserted land he acquired quickly reverted to its natural state, transforming into a temperate rainforest teeming with biodiversity. His memoir, "An Irish Atlantic Rainforest," earned him accolades, including the prestigious An Post Irish Book Award, and his efforts have garnered attention from media outlets such as The Irish Times, The Guardian, and RTE. Describing his rainforest as akin to something out of a fantasy novel, Dalton paints a vivid picture of nature's resilience and beauty. Walking through the lush foliage, one can't help but be awestruck by the magnitude of this magical rebirth—a testament to the power of restoration and stewardship. 

When you close your eyes and picture Ireland, it's easy to conjure up idyllic scenes of rolling green hills dotted with sheep and goats peacefully grazing. However, Eoghan Dalton challenges this serene perception, urging us to confront the ecological impact of these animals on Ireland's forests. Dalton highlighted the detrimental effects of grazing animals on forest ecosystems. Contrary to popular belief, their presence inhibits forest regeneration and expansion, ultimately hindering the natural process of woodland growth. Sheep and goats, depending on the type of forage available, have the potential to overgraze the landscape, depleting vegetation and disrupting delicate ecological balances. Moreover, these animals pose a direct threat to young trees by stripping bark—a behaviour that can lead to the death of saplings and stifle the rejuvenation of forested areas. Far from being harmonious inhabitants of the landscape, sheep and goats emerge as unwitting adversaries to Ireland's forests, undermining efforts to promote biodiversity and combat climate change.

Central to Dalton's message is the link between food production and environmental degradation. He emphasises the need to reevaluate our dependence on animal agriculture, which he sees as a primary driver of habitat destruction and climate change. While he acknowledges that transitioning to a vegan lifestyle overnight may seem daunting, he advocates for incremental changes—reducing meat and dairy consumption wherever and whenever possible.

Reflecting on the past, Dalton notes how meat and dairy were not omnipresent in every meal for previous generations. The shift towards heavy animal-based diets has been gradual, but he believes that by revisiting our eating habits and embracing plant-based alternatives, we can lessen our ecological footprint and pave the way for a more sustainable future. Dalton's work serves as both an inspiration and a call to action. By reconnecting with nature and reimagining our relationship with food, we have the power to effect profound change. As we navigate the challenges of the present and chart a course for the future, his story reminds us that even the smallest actions can make a difference in restoring balance to our planet.

Dr. Aifric O’Sullivan, a distinguished academic and researcher in the field of food sustainability, brought further clarity to the discussion by delving into what truly constitutes a sustainable diet. As an Assistant Professor at UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science  her insights shed light on the multifaceted nature of sustainable food systems. Drawing from the definition provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Dr. O’Sullivan emphasised that sustainable diets extend beyond considerations of nutrition and the environment to encompass economic and socio-cultural dimensions. This holistic perspective underscores the complexity of achieving sustainability in our food systems—a challenge that requires comprehensive solutions addressing a range of interconnected factors.

In recent years, there has been a notable shift towards integrating sustainability principles into food policies and consumer education programs worldwide. This trend reflects an increasing recognition of the urgent need to address environmental degradation and promote more resilient and equitable food systems. One key strategy has been the development of Food-Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDGs) that incorporate recommendations for sustainable food practices and choices. These recommendations span various aspects of dietary behaviour, emphasising the importance of adopting a predominantly plant-based diet, prioritising seasonal and local foods, reducing food waste, and making conscious choices regarding the consumption of animal-source foods. Dr. O’Sullivan highlighted the significance of initiatives such as the EAT-Lancet Commission, which advocates for a diet comprising 25% animal-source foods and 75% nuts and legumes—a stark contrast to the current dietary patterns observed in Ireland.

Indeed, Ireland's dietary landscape presents a striking paradox. While the country boasts a rich agricultural tradition, its modern diet is characterised by a heavy reliance on animal-based products, processed foods, and sugar-sweetened beverages. This discordance between tradition and contemporary consumption patterns underscores the need for concerted efforts to align dietary habits with principles of sustainability and health.