A study looking at whether the future world population can be fed within planetary boundaries has found that it may indeed not be possible given how food is currently grown, processed, transported, consumed and wasted.
The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health conducted the study.
EAT is a global, nonprofit start-up with the stated mission of transforming the global food system.
The Lancet is a weekly medical journal owned by Elsevier. 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 & Climate Change – will publish later in January.
Funding for the EAT-Lancet Commission study came from the Wellcome Trust and EAT. The Stockholm Resilience Centre was the scientific coordinator of the report.
Among the conclusions reached by the commission were that:
● “Feeding a growing population of 10 billion people by 2050 with a healthy and sustainable diet will be impossible without transforming eating habits, improving food production and reducing food waste. First scientific targets for a healthy diet that places healthy food consumption within the boundaries of our planet will require significant change but are within reach.
● “The daily dietary pattern consists of approximately 35% of calories as whole grains and tubers, protein sources mainly from plants -- but including approximately 14 g of red meat per day -- and 500 g per day of vegetables and fruits.
● “Moving to this new dietary pattern will require global consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar to decrease by about 50%, while consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables and legumes must double.
● “Unhealthy diets are the leading cause of ill health worldwide, and following the diet could avoid approximately 11 million premature deaths per year.
● “The diet can exist within planetary boundaries for food production such as use of land, nutrients, freshwater and biodiversity loss and climate change.”
The EAT-Lancet Commission is essentially proposing scientific targets for what it deems constitutes a healthy diet from a sustainable food system. Its campaign promotes diets consisting of a variety of 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.
“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 one of the commission authors, professor Tim Lang, City, University of London, U.K. “We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before in ways appropriate to each country’s circumstances. While this is unchartered policy territory and these problems are not easily fixed, this goal is within reach, and there are opportunities to adapt international, local and business policies. The scientific targets we have devised for a healthy, sustainable diet are an important foundation which will underpin and drive this change.”
The commission is a three-year project that reportedly brings together 37 experts from 16 countries with expertise in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, food systems, economics and political governance.
Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief at The Lancet, said: “The transformation that the commission calls for is not superficial or simple and requires a focus on complex systems, incentives and regulations, with communities and governments at multiple levels having a part to play in redefining how we eat. Our connection with nature holds the answer, and if we can eat in a way that works for our planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance of the planet’s resources will be restored. The very nature that is disappearing holds the key to human and planetary survival.”
Report draws a response
“Let’s call the EAT-Lancet Commission’s report what it is: yet another organized attack on animal agriculture that is not reflective of the current and accurate science on the industry’s substantial sustainability advances. We agree with the report’s authors that there is a need to continue producing sufficient food that both feeds our growing population and protects the planet. Unfortunately, the commission made three critical and erroneous assumptions: that there is consensus on the science behind their recommendations, that the advance of new technologies will not contribute to further reducing the environmental impact of animal protein production and that all sources of protein provide equivalent nutritional value for human diets," said Joel Newman, president and chief executive officer of the American Feed Industry Assn.
"The animal food industry has been working with farmers and ranchers, the scientific research community and other global partners – likely long before the report’s authors began touting a plant-based lifestyle – on bringing new technologies and enhanced nutritional formulas to the marketplace, significantly reducing the animal agriculture industry’s environmental impact while providing animals with optimal nutrition and health. The animal food industry is doing even more than ever before in benchmarking its environmental footprint and providing data to farmers and ranchers so they can make better decisions. Unfortunately, the report’s calls to return to primarily an ‘agrarian lifestyle’ will undo years of research and innovation while likely keeping nutritious and high-quality protein and dairy products out of the hands of the people who need them the most. The commission’s disingenuous claims, focused against animal agriculture, does the public a disservice by not discussing realistic, scientific solutions to addressing tomorrow’s food and environmental challenges," Newman added.
“U.S. farmers and ranchers lead the world in efficient practices that deliver unmatched nutrition while conserving natural resources and decreasing environmental impact. The EAT-Lancet Commission ignores evidence of meat and dairy’s contributions to healthy, sustainable diets. The commission’s radical recommendations to drastically limit meat and dairy consumption would have serious, negative consequences for the health of people and the planet," Animal Agriculture Alliance president and CEO Kay Johnson Smith said. "The EAT-Lancet recommendations (for example, to eat just a quarter-ounce of beef per day and drink just one cup of milk) risk worsening malnutrition, increasing food waste and distracting from the highest priorities for addressing greenhouse gas emissions. The science about the best path forward is clear: Meat and dairy are critical to high-quality nutrition, less food waste and efficient use of our precious natural resources.”
"In light of the changing global demographics and environmental challenges, the dairy sector understands the need to supply more food, more efficiently. The dairy sector has long recognized that sustainability encompasses various elements, including the environment, socioeconomic aspects and nutrition. In order to reach the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, a broad range of solutions will be needed. It is not just about feeding the world a certain number of calories; it is about nourishing people with nutrient-rich food, like milk and dairy, that encourages optimal growth and performance," said International Dairy Federation president Dr. Judith Bryans and Global Dairy Platform executive director Donald Moore. "The dairy sector has an established record of embracing new practices and is an active participant in implementing innovative solutions to feed the world. As stewards of the planet, dairy farmers are constantly seeking ways to efficiently produce better food while reducing environmental impacts, caring responsibly for their animals and making the land better for the next generation. We are committed to engaging in an open conversation about the totality of the global food system."
“Modern U.S. livestock agriculture is a tremendous example of how the world can produce the nutritious, safe food people need while contributing less GHGs per calorie of food,” said National Pork Producers Council president Jim Heimerl, a pork producer from Ohio. “The U.N. has said there are ‘limitations to emissions reductions in the agriculture sector particularly because of … providing food for a global population that is expected to continue to grow’ and that ‘it would be reasonable to expect emissions reductions in terms of improvements in efficiency rather than absolute reductions in GHG emissions."
“To address sustainability and undernourishment,” Heimerl added, “maybe the report’s authors should call on the European Union to drop its Draconian ‘precautionary principle’ that all-but prevents the use of new technologies and modern production practices. It’s those kinds of restrictions that are forcing farmers around the world to forego using scientifically proved technologies that produce more food and in a more environmentally friendly way.”
“Of course, climate change is real and does require our attention, and, yes, livestock should be optimized but also be used as part of the solution to make our environments and food systems more sustainable and our populations healthier. But instead of undermining the foundations of our diets and the livelihoods of many, we should be tackling rather than ignoring the root causes, in particular, hyperconsumerism. What we should avoid is losing ourselves in slogans, nutritional scientism and distorted worldviews,” Frédéric Leroy, professor of food science and technology who is investigating the scientific and societal aspects of animal food products, and Martin Cohen, a social scientist and author of I Think Therefore I Eat, noted in "European Food Agency News."