A recent New York Times article outlined 7 ways the US could make significant headway in reducing carbon emissions: a carbon tax, utility requirements to produce all electricity from zero-carbon sources, electric vehicles, industry efficiency, California-style building efficiency, curbing methane emissions from oil and gas operations, and ending the use of hydrofluorocarbons. However, while such approaches would be excellent means to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, one significant measure was left off the list: reframing the world’s unhealthy and unsustainable food system.
A team of international experts has bonded to form the EAT-Lancet Commission, which is attempting to set universal scientific targets for the food system that apply to all people and the planet. Why is this necessary? Because humanity’s dominant diets are not good for us, and they are not good for the planet.
The report, “Food in the Anthropocene: Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems,” considers current food production and consumption trends in terms of not only planet-warming emissions but also cropland and freshwater use, nitrogen and phosphorus cycling, and species extinction. Without action such as is indicated in the report, the world risks failing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement, and today’s children will inherit a planet that has been severely degraded and where much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease.
There is substantial scientific evidence that links diets with human health and environmental sustainability. Yet the absence of globally agreed scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production has hindered large-scale and coordinated efforts to transform the global food system. To address this critical need, 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 global scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production.
“The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet, and we are currently getting this seriously wrong,” declared Tim Lang, a co-author of the EAT-Lancet Commission and professor at City, University of London. “We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before in ways appropriate to each country’s circumstances.”
This is the first attempt to set universal scientific targets for the food system that apply to all people and the planet. The Commission’s aim was to identify a set of actions that meet the scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production, which will allow for a transition of the global food system to within the safe operating space.
What environmental impacts do food systems have? Consequences occur along the entire supply chain from production to processing and retail. They affect society, culture, economy, animal health, and animal welfare. The Commission determined that food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.
Sustainable Food Production — Necessary Boundaries
Interacting biogeophysical systems and processes in the Earth system, in particular between the climate system and the biosphere, regulate the state of the planet. The Commission focuses on the main systems and processes affected by food production and for which scientific evidence allows the provision of quantifiable targets. These systems and processes are being increasingly recognized as necessary parameters for a system-wide definition of sustainable food production.
For each of these, the Commission proposes boundaries that global food production should stay within to decrease the risk of irreversible and potentially catastrophic shifts in the Earth system. These planetary boundaries for food production conceptually define the upper limit of environmental effects for food production at the global scale.
The boundary estimate is an assessment of the maximum amount of non-CO2 gases (i.e. methane and nitrous oxide) that have been assessed as both necessary and hard to further reduce – at least before 2050 – in order to achieve both healthy diets for everyone on the planet and the targets of the Paris Agreement. The research indicates that a Great Food Transformation will not occur without widespread multi-sector, multi-level action, which must be guided by scientific targets.
Veggies are Essential in a Sustainable Diet
Food systems can provide healthy diets for an estimated population of about 10 billion people by 2050 and remain within a safe operating space. However, even small increases in the consumption of red meat or dairy foods would make this goal difficult or impossible to achieve. The analysis shows that staying within the safe operating space for food systems requires a combination of substantial shifts toward mostly plant-based dietary patterns, dramatic reductions in food losses and waste, and major improvements in food production practices.
“To be healthy, diets must have an appropriate calorie intake and consist of a variety of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal-based foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and few refined grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars,” states Walter Willett of Harvard University. Co-lead commissioner Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Center also told the Guardian, “Humanity now poses a threat to the stability of the planet… nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution.”
Strategy 1: The scientific targets set out by this Commission provide guidance for the necessary shift, recommending increased consumption of plant-based foods – including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains – while in many settings substantially limiting animal source foods. 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.
Strategy 2: 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. Alongside dietary shifts, agricultural and marine policies must be reoriented toward a variety of nutritious foods that enhance biodiversity rather than aiming for increased volume of a few crops, much of which is now used for animal feed. Livestock production needs to be considered in specific contexts.
Strategy 3: The current global food system requires a new agricultural revolution that is based on sustainable intensification and driven by sustainability and system innovation. This would entail at least a 75% reduction of yield gaps on current cropland, radical improvements in fertilizer and water use efficiency, recycling of phosphorus, redistribution of global use of nitrogen and phosphorus, implementing climate mitigation options including changes in crop and feed management, and enhancing biodiversity within agricultural systems. In addition, to achieve negative emissions globally as per the Paris Agreement, the global food system must become a net carbon sink from 2040 and onward.
Strategy 4: This implies feeding humanity on existing agricultural land i.e. by implementing a zero-expansion policy of new agricultural land into natural ecosystems and species-rich forests, aiming management policies at restoring and reforesting degraded land, establishing international land use governance mechanisms, and adopting a “Half Earth” strategy for biodiversity conservation (i.e. conserve at least 80% of preindustrial species richness by protecting the remaining 50% of Earth as intact ecosystems). Moreover, there is a need to improve the management of the world’s oceans to ensure that fisheries do not negatively impact ecosystems, fish stocks are utilized responsibly, and global aquaculture production is expanded sustainably.
Strategy 5: Substantially reducing food losses at the production side and food waste at the consumption side is essential for the global food system to stay within a safe operating space. Both technological solutions applied along the food supply chain and implementation of public policies are required in order to achieve an overall 50% reduction in global food loss and waste as per the targets of the SDGs. Actions include improving post-harvest infrastructure, food transport, processing and packing, increasing collaboration along the supply chain, training and equipping producers, and educating consumers.
The Commission shows that feeding 10 billion people a healthy diet within safe planetary boundaries for food production by 2050 is both possible and necessary. It also demonstrates that the universal adoption of a planetary health diet would help avoid severe environmental degradation and prevent approximately 11 million human deaths annually. However, to safeguard the natural systems and processes that humanity depends on and that ultimately determine the stability of the Earth system will require no less than a Great Food Transformation.
It’s less a binary — as explored by jazz greats Fitzgerald and Armstrong in the class song below — than it is an unprecedented opportunity to develop food systems as a common thread among many international, national, and business policy frameworks aiming for improved human health and environmental sustainability.
Images retrieved from “Food in the Anthropocene: Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems,” courtesy of the EAT-Lancet Commission
If you’d like to read more of the EAT-Lancet report, click here.
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