Healthy diet, sustainability, politics, limited science and reality check are points at top of mind as one reads the Jan. 16 paper "Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems." The paper calls for "transforming the global food system" to in part achieve the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Agreement. The paper does raise ideas about and lofty thoughts on our global food production system that merit reasoned consideration as one seeks to responsibly feed all individuals in a nutritious and sustainable manner. However, after reading the paper, one may conclude that the "great food transformation" would ensure sustained hunger and malnutrition.
Why such a conclusion -- critical questions remain? Are the nutrients of a plant-based diet equivalent to a food-animal based diet? What is the nutrient productivity of a plant versus an animal? What is the comparable factor: calories, protein, nutrients or serving? Is land interchangeable for plant use and food animal use? What are the energy, water and nutrient needs to grow plants versus animals? What is the total lifecycle analysis impact of a plant versus food animal source? What is the impact of changing from high-yield to low-yield crops or production practices? Where are the scientific data to demonstrate an actual versus theoretical positive health and environmental outcome? Is it possible to change the global food production system in 30 years?
The paper appears to be written with an end-in-mind conclusion and thus the search for data points to justify the conclusion. The paper assesses and crunches various selected data points concluding, “Our universal healthy reference diet largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and unsaturated oils, includes a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and includes no or a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains and starchy vegetables.”
Selectivity of data points and interpretation proliferate regarding dietary component impacts, protein and nutrient sources and environmental footprints. Selectively picking a few of the paper’s points regarding diet, “Adequate protein intake for adults is 0.8 g/kg bodyweight, which is 56 g per day for a 70-kg individual or about 10% of energy intake. Protein quality (defined by effect on growth rate) reflects the amino acid composition of the food source, and animal sources of protein are of higher quality than most plant sources. … However, a mix of amino acids that maximally stimulate cell replication and growth might not be optimal throughout most of adult life because rapid cell replication can increase cancer risk.” The last sentence is leading as by definition cancer is a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth and the majority are caused by various environmental and lifestyle factors of which diet is a risk factor.
Further the paper notes, “Most of the available evidence has been from studies done in Europe and the U.S. In a pooled analysis of Asian cohort studies, poultry and red meat consumption (mainly pork) was inversely associated with all-cause mortality. The discrepancies between this analysis and those from Europe and the U.S. might be partly explained by the fact that Asian populations eat smaller amounts of meat than European and American populations. …” Then it goes on to explain away the Asian data that is contrary to their end-in-mind recommendations.
And the paper notes, “Because intake of red meat is not essential and appears to be linearly related to total mortality and risks of other health outcomes in populations that have consumed it for many years, optimal intake might be 0 g per day, especially if replaced by plant sources of protein. Because data on risk of low intakes of red meat are imprecise, we have concluded that an intake of 0 g per day to about 28 g per day of red meat is desirable and have used a midpoint of 14 g per day for the reference diet. Since consumption of poultry has been associated with better health outcomes than has red meat, we have concluded that the optimum consumption of poultry is 0 g per day to about 58 g per day and have used a midpoint of 29 g per day for the reference diet.” Notice the arbitrary optimum consumption conclusions as is the norm in the paper.
A part of the paper’s premise for diet is derived from information on the traditional Mediterranean diets and a study that notes, “In the 1960s, when incidence of coronary heart disease and overall mortality was low in Greek men living in Crete, their average intake of red meat and poultry combined was 35 g per day.” There are several more recent studies that provide in-depth scientific data on diet and health impacts that merit more weight in determining recommendations.
Associated, related, might, appear and imprecise are words often used throughout the paper in relation to risks -– such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer -– and potential benefits. Scientific targets, planetary boundaries, uncertainty ranges and natural variability are key words within the paper. The paper notes it proposes a safe operating space for food systems that encompasses human health and environmental sustainability. It does provide ideas for consideration; however, their drastic proposal appears to be more agenda driven that scientific data driven.
The "ivory tower" philosophy for a soft or hard approach for the great food transformation is insightful as it notes, “However, the scale of change to the food system is unlikely to be successful if left to the individual or the whim of consumer choice. This change requires reframing at the population and systemic level. By contrast, hard policy interventions include laws, fiscal measures, subsidies and penalties, trade reconfiguration, and other economic and structural measures. These interventions alter conditions in which the whole population exists.” In essence the paper infers international governmental dictate will be needed to advance the great food transformation.
A September Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, “2018 - The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” had the highlight, “Hunger is on the rise. For the third year in a row, there has been a rise in world hunger. The absolute number of undernourished people, i.e. those facing chronic food deprivation, has increased to nearly 821 million in 2017, from around 804 million in 2016. These are levels from almost a decade ago.” Observationally, the areas of the highest prevalence of undernourishment, including Asia, Africa and South America, are often the areas with the slowest adoption, or non-adoption, of innovative agricultural practices.
A ‘transformation’ may be appropriate, but it should be with a renewed focus on adopting innovative products and practices with demonstrated benefits for increasing a nutrient rich and a sustainable food supply; including the use of biotechnology, productivity products and chemicals - each as regulated product to ensure their safe use. Innovation in agriculture has been the savior for meeting food security and nutrition needs historically. Encouraging farmers to grow the most appropriate nutrient rich food, animal or crop, for their locale in the most efficient and sustainable manner, and then facilitating trade, will provide so that nutritious, affordable and sustainable food is available to all.
Human health and environmental sustainability are complex issues for which informed thoughts and challenging discussions are needed. The paper’s proposed transformation of the global food system within 30 years to a new system with a speculative and theoretical outcome would almost certainly result in sustained hunger and malnutrition issues. Rather an urgency for collaboration in support of agriculture innovation and adoption of best agriculture practices will be key to feeding the world with a healthy, nutritious and sustainable food supply. Meat, eggs and dairy will need to remain key components of a balanced and nutritious diet if we are to reduce hunger and malnutrition globally.