“Although global food production of calories has kept pace with population growth” so far, the current approach has come at a price that is threatening the long-term health of people and the planet, a team of 37 scientists from 16 countries with expertise across key fields argue in a much anticipated report published Jan. 16 in The Lancet.
They note that despite an aggressive approach to food production worldwide, “more than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume low-quality diets that cause micronutrient deficiencies and contribute to a substantial rise in the incidence of diet-related obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes,” that pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than “unsafe sex and alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined.”
At the same time, “global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience and constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation and transgression of planetary boundaries,” they argue.
“Taken together the outcome is dire,” unless there is a “radical transformation of the global food system,” they add in the report.
Recommendations significantly cap animal product consumption
After three years of reviewing the scientific literature and analyzing the impact of potential changes to the food system, including diet and production, the commission argues that the most effective way to improve the long-term outlook for the health of people and the planet is to adopt a plant-based diet that will double the global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes and reduce by more than 50% consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar.
Specifically, it argues, consumption of red meat should be cut back to approximately 14 grams, compared to 500 grams per day of vegetables and fruits. There is a bit more wiggle room for white meat and dairy – but not much. The report recommends capping consumption at 29 grams per day, which is less than one and a half chicken nuggets, and limiting dairy to 250 grams per day, which is about one cup of milk.
In addition, the commission argues, daily consumption of calories from whole grains and tubers will need to be dramatically reduced to about 35%.
Based on modelled global adoption of the recommended dietary changes on diet-related diseases, the commission predicts 10.9 to 11.6 million premature deaths per year globally could be avoided – a drop of between 19% and 23.6%.
They also project that adopting this diet would reduce unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions of methane and nitrous oxide to 4.7 to 5.4 gigatonnes by 2050, compared to the current 5.2 gigatonnes of emissions estimated in 2010.
Similarly, based on their estimates, current levels of nitrogen could be reduced to 65-140 teragrams in 2050 compared to 131.8 teragrams in 2010, while land use could be cut from 12.5 M km2 in 2010 to 11-15 M km2 in 2050. Finally, they project the change could lower water use to 1-4 M km3 in 2050 from 1.8 M km3 in 2010.
‘An outrageous departure from consensus’
Animal agriculture stakeholders and some independent experts argue that the report, which was a combined effort on the part of The Lancet medical Journal and the EAT forum, goes too far in recommending limits on consumption of animal-based products.
“Meat and dairy are easily the most nutrient-dense foods available to humans,” and recommendations to limit consumption of beef to just a quarter ounce per day “are not only unrealistic but potentially dangerous for healthy diets,” claimed Jason Rowntree, an expert in Carbon sequestration from Michigan State University.
Stuart Philips, a nutrition expert from McMaster University, agrees that the recommendation to cut beef consumption to a quarter ounce per day “is a drastic departure from evidence showing meat and dairy improve diet.”
He adds that “human beings, especially as we age, cannot do without protein.”
The report, however, does not advocate cutting protein. Rather it advocates obtaining protein from plant-based sources.
Nonetheless, animal products also provide other health benefits beyond protein that are overlooked in the report, argues Jean-Luc Meriaux, secretary general of the European Livestock and Meat Trading Union.
He argues: “Meat provides unrivaled nutrition and is an important part of a balance diet. A balanced diet including meat ensures, without any need for supplements, an adequate natural intake of essential nutrients, including iron, zinc and B vitamins in particular.”
Cutting animal products as drastically as recommended in the report also could have “negative consequences” for the planet, the Animal Agriculture Alliance argues. For example, it notes that livestock animals make use of forage, leftovers and tough plants that humans don’t like or can’t digest.
In addition, it suggests plant-based products are two to three times more likely to be wasted than meat or dairy, which could lead to an increase in food waste and loss if the report recommendations are followed.
Finally, it says, the report is a distraction from other more substantial causes of greenhouse gas emissions, such as burning fossil fuels, and ignores the improvements in sustainability that the animal agriculture industry has made over the past decades.
5 strategies to avoid ‘catastrophe’
The report proactively warns readers not to be swayed by naysayers or those who want to take a wait and see approach.
“The data are both sufficient and strong enough to warrant immediate action,” it argues, adding, “delaying action will only increase the likelihood of serious, even disastrous, consequences.”
As such, it recommends five sweeping strategies to avoid the “potentially catastrophic shifts in the Earth system.”
The first is to garner “international and national commitment to shift toward healthy diets,” such as the plant-based approach that the authors argue scientific research supports.
Building consensus is never easy, but the report argues “this concerted commitment can be achieved by making healthy foods more available, accessible and affordable in place of unhealthier alternatives, improving information and food marketing, investing in public health information and sustainability education, implementing food-based dietary guidelines and using health care services to deliver dietary advice and interventions.”
To further support this strategy, the commission’s second strategy recommends reorienting agricultural priorities from producing high quantities of food to producing healthy food.
“Agriculture and fisheries must not only produce enough calories to feed a growing global population, but must also produce a diversity of foods that nurture human health and support environmental sustainability,” the report argues.
For example, it argues, “rather than aiming for increased volume of a few crops, much of which is now used for animal feed,” producers and policies should focus on “a variety of nutritious foods that enhance biodiversity.”
The third strategy focuses on increasing high-quality output to reduce the current yield gaps on cropland by 75% as well as more efficiently using limited resources and making the global food system a “net carbon sink from 2040 and onward.”
To achieve this, the commission recommends players improve fertilizer and water efficiency, recycle and redistribute phosphorus, redistribute nitrogen use and enhance biodiversity within agriculture systems.
By improving the efficiency of existing agriculture land, the commission argues that there would be no need to expand new agriculture land into natural ecosystems. As such, its fourth strategy urges a “strong and coordinated governance of land and oceans” that would protect the remaining 50% of Earth “as intact ecosystems.”
The final strategy is one that many in the food, beverage and agricultural industries are already actively trying to address, and that is to substantially reduce food loss and waste.
Specifically, the commission recommends halving the current food loss and waste to align with UN Sustainable Development Goals by improving post-harvest infrastructure, food transport, processing and packing and increasing collaboration along the supply chain.
The commission acknowledges that the entire burden for this strategy cannot fall to industry alone, but that consumers also must be educated on food waste and loss reduction methods.
While implementing these strategies will require “hard work, political will and sufficient resources” from multiple sectors at multiple levels, the commission urges stakeholders and potential change makers not to delay action.