New diet needed to transform broken food system

A commission of scientists has developed a new framework that aims to radically shift consumption towards a more sustainable, plant-focused diet.

planetary health diet
A team of scientists have come up with a plant-focused diet that allows for 2,500 calories per day. Image: Molly Katzen/Eat Forum

Heeding growing alarm over a global food system that has caused vast environmental damage and left millions of people in poor health, a team of scientists have come up with a diet it says can save both lives and the planet.

The solution, dubbed the “planetary health diet,” promotes a radical overhaul of the way food is produced and consumed, most notably calling on developed countries to slash red meat consumption by more than half of current consumption.

Drawn up by The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest medical journals, and EAT, a non-profit organisation working towards fair and sustainable food systems, the report outlines the first ever scientific targets needed to feed a growing global population with nutritious food while reducing the food industry’s massive carbon footprint.

Food production is responsible for 30 per cent of global gas emissions, with the production of red meat having the highest environmental footprint due to the way livestock is being raised and fed. Feeding the world also takes up 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater and leads to biodiversity loss when land is converted into farms.

The prevailing food system has also given rise to a global nutrition paradox, where over 820 million people still go hungry every day, and over 2 billion adults are overweight and obese. Diet-related diseases such as diabetes are also on the rise due to the growing popularity of fast, processed foods and increasing consumption of unhealthy, sugar-laden foods.

The report highlights the need for sweeping changes involving diet, food waste, and agricultural practices: “Humanity has never aimed to change the global food system on the scale envisioned. Achieving this goal will require rapid adoption of numerous changes and unprecedented global collaboration and commitment: nothing less than a Great Food Transformation.”

Calling humanity a civilisation in crisis, Richard Horton and Tamara Lucas, editors at The Lancet said: “We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. If we can eat in a way that works for our planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance will be restored.”

The commission behind the report also claims that adoption of the diet will “drive demand for the right foods and send clear market signals all the way through the food value chain back to the farmers,” hence transforming the food system from farm to fork. 

A plate to save the planet

A major component of the planetary health diet involves shifting to plant-based meals. According to the commission, the ideal plate of food would be filled with nuts, vegetables, whole grains and plant-based protein, allowing an average of 2500 calories a day—slightly more than what people consume today. 

However, the most significant change involves the cut in red meat consumption, especially in developed Western countries. In 2016, North Americans ate more than six times the amount of red advised under the new guidelines. This new diet recommends that they need to eat 84 per cent less red meat while Europeans have to eat 77 per cent less.

This translates to eating just one beef burger per week.

In an interview with The Guardian, Walter Willet, one of the leaders of the commission, said: “We are not talking about a deprivation diet here; we are talking about a way of eating that can be healthy, flavourful and enjoyable.”

However, although the report also states that the diet is flexible and can be adapted to “local geography, culinary traditions and personal preferences,” early criticism of the study notes the difficulty of untangling centuries of “recipes, stories and histories that food embodies” which is tied to culture and hence hard to change. 

In a recent opinion piece on the diet’s pitfalls, the author notes that the report fails to consider important aspects influencing the choice of diet such as the “level of income would be required to adopt this diet comfortably,” dietary conditions, cooking skills and people’s personal relationship with food. 

Calling the report a well-researched study, Isabelle Decitre of ID Capital, a startup fund with a focus on food-tech and agri-tech, said:  “It does a great job in enhancing awareness around the stakes and potential solutions. Now what concerns me more is how to move from here.”

She said that that the different stakeholders—policymakers, businesses and individuals—now have to carefully think about where they can make a difference.

“Governments should pass laws and blend preventative measures to encourage healthy diets and well as more coercive ones in some instances,” she added, bringing up the Chinese government’s plan to curb meat consumption. “Obviously this would not work in lots of other countries but given the butterfly effect of trends in this country it is worth mentioning.”

Alongside a general guideline for the average person, the EAT-Lancet commission also released brief recommendations for cities, policymakers, farmers, as well as food service and healthcare professionals. For instance, the framework for cities primarily addresses the problem of food waste, stating the importance of “overseeing a sustainable and energy-efficient food distribution system that limits food loss” and “supporting urban food redistribution schemes that share surplus foods with others.”

Five strategies for general adoption of the planetary health diet include national and global commitments to the report’s targets, a focus on food quality instead of quantity, incentives for more sustainable agricultural production, land and ocean management and greater efforts to cut food waste.  

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