The ‘Diets for a Better Future’ study investigates current food consumption patterns and the efficacy of national dietary guidelines in G20 countries compared to the Planetary Health Diet.
It also explores the potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by shifting toward more healthy and sustainable diets and how this could lead to a more equitable distribution of the global “carbon budget” for food.
The future of the food system will be central in shaping the future of our planet and our civilization.
First, let’s consider the environmental impacts of food. Most people don’t realize it, but our food system and agricultural practices are major drivers of environmental degradation worldwide. Already, agricultural land use dominates about 40% of the Earth’s land surface and has been the principle driver of tropical deforestation, habitat loss and degradation, and global biodiversity loss.
Agriculture is also the biggest consumer, and polluter, of the world’s water resources. Lakes, aquifers, rivers, and even coastal oceans around the world have been disrupted by human activities, notably food production. And the food system contributes about 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, roughly comparable to the emissions resulting from the world’s production of electricity.
In short, nothing else we do has come close to how food, agriculture, and land use are causing global environmental harm. Without major changes, our food system will continue to push Earth well beyond its planetary boundaries.
Beyond these environmental concerns, the world’s current food system also contributes to significant human failures.
On the one hand, a sizable fraction of the world still faces crippling food insecurity and under-nutrition, while on the other hand, hundreds of millions of people face serious health challenges – including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease – linked to unhealthy diets.
To address these environmental and social challenges, we must reboot and reimagine our global food system. Numerous changes to the food system are needed, including protecting intact ecosystems, improving the sustainability of our farming practices, and addressing the tremendous levels of waste in the food system.
But there is one crucial factor that can simultaneously improve our health, our food security, and our environment at the same time – namely, changing our diets. Our dietary choices, especially how much conventionally-produced red meat and dairy products we consume, can drive health and environmental outcomes across the entire food system.
Simply put, reducing the consumption of some foods, while increasing the consumption of others, could have tremendous benefits to the global environment and to human health.
A pioneering study by EAT examines how national dietary guidelines in G20 countries need to be shifted to improve human health and environmental outcomes in the food system. The results strongly indicate the need to change our views on diet and consider both the human health and environmental sustainability implications while setting national food policies.
This study helps illustrate ways to build a better food system – promoting improved food security and human health while reducing environmental impacts.
In a world where climate change, biodiversity loss, food security, and diet-related illnesses are major concerns, changing diets may be one of the single most effective things we can do to build a better future. And this study is a powerful reminder of how we can do it.
The food we choose to eat, how much is lost or wasted, and how it is produced will determine whether or not we meet the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Food systems must transition from being a net source of GHG emissions to a net sink. Shifting toward healthy flexitarian diets is central to this goal. Despite this, food consumption is rarely considered as a solution by countries in meeting climate targets outlined by their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). A large body of evidence has shown that a diet rich in healthy plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods (i.e. up to five servings of animal source foods per week) confers both improved health and environmental benefits. Overall, this literature indicates that such diets are “win-win” in that they are good for both people and planet.
The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health brought all of this evidence together and proposed scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food systems. The Commission concluded that achieving healthy diets from sustainable food systems for 10 billion people by 2050 is possible but only with a significant reduction of animal source foods in some countries (mainly G20 countries) and universal increase in healthy plant-based foods in our diets. Hence, shifting towards flexitarian diets, such as the Planetary Health Diet, composed predominantly of healthy plant-based foods, can optimize human health while reducing environmental impacts. Despite this, most food consumption patterns in G20 countries are not aligned with those of a healthy flexitarian diet and most national dietary guidelines (NDGs) are not ambitious enough to bring food systems within planetary boundaries, including limiting global warming to 1.5°C. This is important because NDGs are a necessary component of food policy and an essential first step to promoting healthy eating habits in a country often through educational programs or public awareness campaigns. If NDGs lack ambition or are incompatible with the latest science on human health and environmental sustainability, then this could influence national level food policy and individual food consumption.
Although there are significant differences in food consumption—within and between G20 countries—reflecting each country’s distinct food traditions and socio-economic circumstances, there is a common trend towards increased prevalence of unhealthy diets, characterized by overconsumption of red meat, dairy, sugar, and highly processed foods and under consumption of healthy foods. This is leading to increasing rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in these countries and at the global level, unhealthy diets now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than does unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined. If these consumption patterns are adopted globally over the coming decades, GHG emissions from food production will nearly double by 2050, largely surpassing the “carbon budget” of 5.0 Gt CO2eq for food. These projected consumption trends could trigger irreversible global “tipping-points” leading to catastrophic environmental damage and jeopardizing human civilization as we know it.
At the same time much of the world’s population still faces burdens of undernutrition, with more than 820 million people having insufficient food and many more consuming low-quality diets. Given all of this, we need an unprecedented effort to shift dietary patterns towards healthy and sustainable food consumption and a global commitment to reverse trends toward unhealthy diets in the rest of the world. Transitions to healthy diets would decrease total global food-related GHG emissions and enable more equitable distribution of these emissions within planetary boundaries. This would ensure that all countries can adequately address all forms of malnutrition while leaving our children a thriving and healthy planet. Without leadership by the G20, the world cannot achieve this critically important goal.
EAT is an Oslo based non-profit with a global mission to transform our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption and novel partnerships.
EAT is focused on shifting the global food system toward a fair and sustainable model that promotes health for both people and planet. Cutting across sectors and disciplines, EAT brings together policy makers, industry leaders, researchers and civil society from around the world to develop realistic, practical solutions that yield big impact and fast.
Learn more at www.eatforum.org
The EAT-Lancet report is available to download HERE