BY: AYTEN SALAHI, MS
"Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.”
There is considerable evidence that links food with human health and environmental sustainability; however, the current state of food production, distribution, consumption, and waste threatens both people and the planet. A radical transformation of the global food system is urgently needed to produce high quantities of nutritious food for all, while promoting climate stability and ecosystem resilience for a growing population. Though this urgent need has been largely acknowledged internationally, an absence of global consensus on evidence-based targets for healthy diets, sustainable food production, and the policies that uphold them have hindered coordinated efforts to make necessary changes to the global food system and the way we eat.
Three years ago, EAT and The Lancet launched a joint commission to establish these global scientific targets. They began with one prickly question: what diet pattern is healthiest for both people and the planet?
To answer this question, the EAT-Lancet Commission convened 37 leading scientists from 16 countries across several disciplines, including health sciences, environmental sustainability, agriculture, and political science. After 3 years of work, the Commission produced a set of global dietary and policy recommendations aimed to sustainably feed 10 billion people, cut global food waste in half, avert 11.1 million adult deaths per year, and restore climate stability by 2050. They call this movement towards a healthier and more sustainable food future the “Great Food Transformation.” To make the transformation a reality, they highlight 5 key strategies to act now, presented in the graphic presented here. Key among these is a radical shift in what we eat and the way we consume, which they distill into a new dietary pattern called the Planetary Health Diet.
The report asserts that people worldwide consume about 288% more red meat, 293% more starchy vegetables, and 153% more eggs than the recommended quantities to stay with in “planetary boundaries,” which they define as the biophysical limits that humanity should operate within to ensure a stable and resilient Earth system. In North America, these estimates jump to 638% for red meat, 171% for starchy vegetables, 268% for eggs, 234% for poultry, and 145% for dairy. The report goes on to provide estimates for Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to account for differences in food consumption patterns between populations and provide adjusted dietary recommendations. In all geographies, the Planetary Health Diet recommends more than double the global average daily consumption of healthy foods like fruits, non-starchy vegetables, legumes, and nuts.
To add to the complexity of setting global, scientific targets for the Planetary Health Diet, the Commission also aimed to establish these guidelines with respect and flexibility for personal preferences, dietary needs, cultural traditions, and other constraints like access and affordability. Rather than prescribing an exact diet fit for all, the Commission outlined a set of empirical food groups and possible food intake ranges that the literature suggest will optimize both human and environmental health. These food groups and suggested intake ranges are intended to be adaptable to culture, geography, and demography of populations and individuals.
Some farmers and livestock ranchers have also raised questions around how realistic it will be to divert land use from livestock to vegetable and grain cultivation, citing the need for adequate irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and the risk of vulnerability to weather events and poor yields.
In spite of the depth and breadth presented in the report, the EAT-Lancet report is most commonly critiqued as “overly simplistic and narrow” in its attempt to recommend a global diet of any kind. Others note the missed opportunity to draw a clear differentiation between factory-farmed products and products from locally-reared, grass-fed animals. In the agricultural community, some have pointed out that the report failed to describe the difference between arable and non-arable lands or quantify whether or not the proposed 50% increase in daily consumption of fruits, non-starchy vegetables, legumes, and nuts is achievable given the our current land constraints. Others have expressed similar concern as to whether or not the report’s aim to increase consumption of a plant-based diet is compatible with their separate aim to adopt a "Half Earth" strategy for biodiversity conservation (i.e. conserve at least 80% of preindustrial species richness by protecting the remaining 50% of Earth as intact ecosystems). Lastly, some have praised the empirical evidence presented in the report but regret that consumption of a Planetary Health Diet places undue responsibility on individuals to incite systemic change through diet rather than through policy. These critics insist upon the urgent need for policy change alongside individual dietary change in order to make real strides in the Great Food Transformation.
The Commission has held strong in the face of these critiques, asserting that:
The EAT-Lancet Report also highlights that a necessary prerequisite for the Great Food Transformation will be coordinated and systemic policy change. To support this agenda, they have already developed a brief for policy-makers.
Though much work remains to be done, there is also much to celebrate with the release of this report. First and foremost, this report demonstrates that the topic of food and food systems has risen to the forefront of the international dialogue on human health, environmental resilience, and climate stability. It also offers an evidence-based blueprint for how we can eat and advocate our way towards a healthier and more sustainable future. Though the hard work to act upon these recommendations lies ahead of both us and our policymakers, it seems that momentum for the Great Food Transformation only continues to grow.