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Diet and food production must radically change: study

Feeding 10 billion people will be impossible without transforming eating habits

A ‘great food transformation’ that radically changes what we eat and how we produce food is urgently needed to feed the world’s 10 billion by 2050, a new report says.

Why it matters: Human diet, health and the environment are inextricably linked but current diets are pushing the Earth’s resources past its limits.

“Human diets inextricably link health and environmental sustainability, and have the potential to nurture both. However, current diets are pushing the Earth beyond its planetary boundaries, while causing ill health,” the report, published January 16 in the medical journal Lancet said.

Released through the Stockholm-based EAT-Lancet Commission, it calls for a dramatically different dietary pattern that would see global consumption of red meat and sugar cut in half, while consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, would double.

The study’s findings provide the first scientific targets for a healthy diet from the perspective of the planet’s limitations for food production.

Lack of science-based targets are what are hindering creation of food systems that operate within the planet’s limitations, authors of the report said.

“The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet, and we are currently getting this seriously wrong,” said Professor Tim Lang at the University of London, U.K.

With respect to human health and diet, that’s evident in global rates of obesity and chronic disease, now offsetting the benefits of increased food production otherwise contributing to reductions in hunger, and infant and child mortality rates.

Across the globe diets are now both high in calories, sugar, refined starches and animal-based foods and low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and fish, the report notes.

Meanwhile, the planet can’t continue to sustain these diets and food production for current diets “is exceeding planetary boundaries, driving climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution due to overapplication of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, and unsustainable changes in water and land use,” the report says.

The optimal diet it is promoting would be one of mainly plant-based foods, with low amounts of animal-based foods, refined grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars, and with unsaturated rather than saturated fats.

Such a diet “is flexible enough to accommodate food cultures around the world,” the report’s co-lead author says.

But it is going to require unprecedented global collaboration to achieve,” said co-lead author of the study Commissioner Johan Rockström, a professor at Stockholm University.

“Nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution,” he said.

“The good news is that it is not only doable, we have increasing evidence that it can be achieved through sustainable intensification that benefits both farmer, consumer and planet.”

The commission proposes five strategies to adjust what people eat and how food would be produced.

One would include policies encouraging people to choose healthy diets, while improving food availability and promoting purchasing from sustainable sources.

Key for agriculture is to shift away from producing high volumes of crops to producing varied nutrient-rich crops, the report said.

“Global agriculture policies should incentivize producers to grow nutritious, plant-based foods, develop programs that support diverse production systems, and increase research funding for ways to increase nutrition and sustainability,” it says.

Sustainably intensifying agriculture, taking local conditions and appropriate agricultural practices into account, and better governance of land and ocean usage will also be key.

Meanwhile, food waste must be “at least halved,” the report stresses. Currently, most food losses worldwide occur in low- to middle-income countries due to poor planning at harvest, lack of markets access and poor storage and processing infrastructure.

The EAT-Lancet Commission is one of several reports on nutrition being published by The Lancet in 2019. The next commission — The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change — will publish later this month.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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