Food system transformation needed for human and planetary health

Salmon, avocado, nuts, and healthy oils on a board

January 17, 2019— Nearly a billion people around the world are going hungry, and nearly two billion are undermining their health by eating too much of the wrong food. At the same time, food production is driving the destruction of natural resources that support human life. Unless these trends are reversed, according to a new report, the consequences for human and planetary health could be dire. What’s needed is nothing short of what the authors call a “Great Food Transformation.”

The EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems report, co-authored by Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, calls for global cooperation and commitment to shift diets toward healthy, largely plant-based patterns; make large reductions in food loss and waste; and implement significant sustainability improvements in food production practices. It was published online January 16, 2019 in The Lancet.

“We are presently on a path leading to a seriously degraded planet.” Willett said. “If we care about the world our children and grandchildren will live in, we need to transform our diets and the way we produce our food. An immediate benefit will be improvements in our health and wellbeing.”

More plants, less meat, sugar

The EAT-Lancet Commission convened 37 leading scientists from 16 countries in various disciplines including human health, agriculture, political sciences, and environmental sustainability to develop the world’s first scientific guidelines for healthy and sustainable diets. The experts argue that these diets—which are largely plant-based and low in red meat and sugar—are the best way to feed a global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. A widespread shift in the way people eat could prevent approximately 11 million premature deaths each year and slow environmental degradation, the authors say.

The guidelines are not a one-size-fits-all prescription, according to Willett. “Diets that are healthy for people and our planet can provide tremendous variety, flavor, and enjoyment,” he said. In addition to vegan and vegetarian diets, there are options for omnivores. He cited, for example, the Mediterranean diet, a largely plant-based plan that prioritizes healthy oils and fish over butter and other animal proteins. “This is a big culinary umbrella with room for everyone,” Willett said.

The authors call for policies that encourage people to choose healthier diets, such as improving affordability of healthy foods, restricting advertising for unhealthy foods, and improving consumer education.

Sustainable food production

Dietary changes must also be combined with improved food production and reduced food waste, according to the authors. Changes should include refocusing agriculture to produce varied nutrient-rich crops, and increasing governance of land and ocean use. Sustainable food production, as outlined by the Commission, also includes safeguarding biodiversity, producing zero carbon dioxide emissions, and causing no further increase in emissions of two other greenhouse gases: methane (produced in the digestion of cows and other livestock) and nitrous oxide (which is emitted from agricultural soils).

The Commission is calling for a transformation that will require a focus on complex systems, said Richard Horton, editor-in-chief at The Lancet, in a statement. Communities, as well as governments at all levels, have a part to play in redefining how we eat, he said. “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,” he said. “The very nature that is disappearing holds the key to human and planetary survival.”

Amy Roeder