It wouldn’t be a new year without a new report or finding! After all, we need more buzz in the news other than government shutdowns, football and weather. Within the past couple of weeks, a highly anticipated report, the “EAT-Lancet Report on Food, Planet and Health” was published in The Lancet, a peer-reviewed general medicine journal. This report was the culmination of work completed by 37 global health professionals and researchers, the 19 member EAT-Lancet Commission and 18 additional co-authors over a two-year period. The premise of the report is that current diets are harming human and planetary health, and the potential growth of the population to 10 billion people in 2050 will exceed the earth’s environmental boundaries without revolutionary changes to the food system.
Four specific areas are highlighted: (1) the food, diet and health implications associated with poor dietary habits and the recommendation for a “healthy reference diet”; (2) the need for sustainable agricultural practices to ensure the long-term viability of our natural resources — land, water, air — with reduction strategies for greenhouse emissions and phosphorus and nitrogen pollution; (3) migration strategies for food production and reduction of food waste to achieve environmental goals; and (4) a “Great Food Transformation,” including a wide range of ambitious policy efforts as part of a multi-level action to change what food is eaten, how it is produced, and its effects on the environment and health.
With the recent updates showing that the U.S. has not made progress in reducing obesity and diabetes in adults, no one can deny that diet impacts human health. And, how the food we eat is produced (or wasted) will affect the long-term health of the planet. However, recommending a “healthy reference diet” that is essentially plant based with less than 3 oz of animal protein (including fish) daily and only 1.5 eggs weekly is not sustainable for most in the long term….and creates potential vitamin and mineral gaps for some. Increasing vegetables and fruits in our diet is essential! The current U.S. Dietary Guidelines is plant-centered, recommending we make “half of our daily plate” fruits and vegetables along with a balance of dairy and lean animal-based proteins. But the problem lies within us, the consumer, making the changes. Current studies show that most of us eat only 1.5 cups of F&Vs daily versus the recommended 4.5 cups. And for some, overeating of animal-based proteins is a reality. Starting with a balanced approach to a healthy diet is the first step in sustainability.
The need for sustainable agriculture is correct as mentioned in the report but what the report fails to highlight are the accomplishments of the current agricultural system that are protecting the land and water resources as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Specially, animal agriculture is called out as the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. But, in reality, direct greenhouse gas emissions from all livestock in the U.S. are only 3.8% of the total, while transportation emissions are 26.4%.1 Are we willing to reduce our dependence on planes and cars? Protecting natural resources are the baseline for agricultural production so farmers are continuously looking at ways to be more efficient and reduce waste. Today, we produce three times more milk with about half the number of cows than when my father was milking in the 1960s and 70s.
The importance of reducing food waste has not been lost on the entire food value chain. Agricultural methods are being implemented to reduce waste in the field. Retail markets, like The Kroger Company, have implemented a “Zero Waste” program. But perhaps the biggest gap in this area lies within us, the consumer. Acceptance of less than perfect produce, using purchased food timely and learning to love “leftovers” are significant steps we all can take to reverse the waste.
The sponsor of the report, the EAT-Lancet Commission, is a joint effort between EAT, The Lancet and The Stockholm Resilience Center. These organizations are well known for their support of a global shift towards plant-based diets so it’s no surprise of the report’s focus.
However, the “call to action” to feed the world sustainability is not to be taken lightly. Like other significant problems, there is not a single cause or solution. Food is at the core of our existence regardless where we fit in the food system. If we are truly committed to ensuring an adequate and healthful food supply for all, we should look no further than our own practices and food habits before we start pointing fingers at others.
1. Mitloehner, F. Addressing the 2050 Food Challenge-a Sustainable Solution Must Include Livestock. International Animal Health Journal. 2018.5(1): 56-58.