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The planetary diet: How humans need to eat to sustain a population of 10 billion

Tags: public health

We’re reaching a breaking point as a species, with our population growth rapidly outstripping what the Earth is capable of supporting. UN population estimates state that, in the last fifty years, our population has gone from 3.7 billion to 7.8 billion; and in the next fifty, it will increase to a whopping 10.6 billion people. However, concomitantly with this population change, has been a change in our diets. Globally, we have shifted to unhealthy foods that are high in calories, heavily processed, and heavily dependent on meats, which are more difficult to sustain as the global population increases, and it is this challenge that the Eat-Lancet Commission is trying to tackle. Last week, the Eat-Lancet Commission released their first report, titled “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.” From their website:

Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement targets to reduce carbon emissions means urgently and fundamentally changing the way we eat and produce food. But key questions remain unanswered and a lack of scientific consensus is slowing down governments, businesses and civil society actors who want to take action:

  • We don’t have a scientific consensus to define what is a healthy diet for all humans.

  • We don’t have a comprehensive review of how food production must change to be sustainable.

  • We don’t have clear, science-based guidelines telling all actors how we can provide humans with healthy diets from a sustainable food system.

They justify why the food system is one to focus on, based on the disproportionate burden it places on the planet. While agriculture occupies ~40% of global land, it is responsible for up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 70% of freshwater usage. This has effects on other species, with land use threatening some with extinction, and overfishing (another aspect of the food system) increasing the environmental burden on marine systems. They argue that since the food system is predicated on what people consume, changing diets is the first step to changing the priorities of our food system.

Which leads to the obvious question – what do we need to do to save the planet, and ensure future generations can live here? One aspect of the report that I really liked was the range of “briefs” they produced, aimed at everyone from cities, farmers, food service professionals, healthcare professionals, and the general public. Given the range of readers here, I’ve highlighted some steps that everyone can follow to help achieve the goals of a sustainable health system (check here for the full list):

  1. A plant-based diet has more options than we realize. Generally, we only sample a fraction of available food. Across price ranges, cultures, age groups, and individual preferences, there are many different meal options available to us.
  2. Plants can be a source of protein. Many plants are both healthy and sustainable sources of dietary protein.
  3. Go easy on meat consumption. Meat is an important source of nutrients, but eating excessive amounts of meat is harmful for both our health and the planet. The report recommends we aim to consume “less than 98 grams of red meat (pork, beef or lamb), 203 grams of poultry and 196 grams of fish per week.”
  4. Vote with your plate. Markets will follow demand, and so the more people purchase sustainable foods, the more the food industry will produce in that area.
  5. Plan the week ahead. Healthy and sustainable eating is easier if you can plan meals for the week. This will ensure you enjoy what you eat, as well as ensure diversity in your meals.

There are many other points raised in the brief, and, to the authors credit, are generally tangible actions you can take if you are so inclined.

The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health (source)

Now, there’s a lot to unpack here, and it will be challenging to implement. In fact, when researching for this piece, I came across as much hate for the report as support, with a lot of skepticism coming from the audience. The idea of changing your diet to include red meat to only include one burger a week, or one large steak a month, is a large change that many are not either ready, willing, or able to do. However, minor changes can still set us on the path for success, and encouraging others while expanding our own cooking can still help benefit us all.

 

 

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