It's no secret that the course we're on with food production and consumption is in need of serious correcting, but a major new report from a global team of scientists has laid out the kind of maneuvering needed to set us on a sustainable path. Billed as a planetary health diet for both the Earth and its people, the set of guidelines put forward by the EAT-Lancet Commission gun for nothing short of a "Great Food Transformation," something they say would feed 10 billion people, save lives and avoid large-scale environmental destruction.
The UN expects the global population to hit around 10 billion people by 2050, and the reality is our current food practices cannot support both that and the health of our planet. Indeed, the environment that supports human existence will begin to burst at the seams if we continue with the status quo. As associate professor of mathematics Andrew Hwang notes in The Conversation, in wealthy countries "we live as if our savings account balance were steady income."
The EAT-Lancet Commission is a team of 37 scientists from various disciplines that take aim at this problem via the prism of food. The aim of the team is to establish a robust, scientific consensus on what constitutes a diet that is not only nutritious and healthy, but will be sustainable for the planet in the year 2050.
One particularly unnerving statistic of our current food practices is that one in every three mouthfuls of it go to waste, around 1.3 billion tonnes annually, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Association. The EAT-Lancet scientists say that around 820 million people go hungry every day, with 150 million children experiencing long-term hunger that hampers growth and development and 50 million of those children classed as "acutely hungry."
At the same time, obesity and diabetes rates are on the rise, with more than two billion adults around the world classed as overweight and obese. How we correct these imbalances, and do so in a way that looks after the planet, is a huge undertaking, but the scientists maintain that a healthy, sustainable food system is very much attainable.
"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," says one of the report's authors, Professor Tim Lang, City, University of London, UK. "We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before in ways appropriate to each country's circumstances. While this is unchartered policy territory and these problems are not easily fixed, this goal is within reach and there are opportunities to adapt international, local and business policies."
Red meat production places a huge strain on the environment, demanding vast amounts of land and water while outputting substantial greenhouse gas emissions. The scientists call for consumption of red meat to be halved globally, with that protein to be sourced from plants like chickpeas and beans instead. This is particularly pertinent in North America, where residents eat almost 6.5 times the recommended amount of red meat, compared to countries in South Asia where residents eat only half.
The team's proposed diet allows for the consumption of no more than 98 g (3.45 oz) of red meat a week, 203 g (7.1 oz) of chicken and 196 g (6.1 oz) of fish. Meanwhile, the diet suggests consuming at least 500 g (17.6 oz) of fruits and vegetables, 125 g of dry beans, lentils, peas and other nuts and legumes each day. While this presents a massive shift for many, it won't appear all that foreign to folks in some parts of the world.
"As the authors point out, many traditional diets, such as those in Mexico and India, consist largely of plant-based food and only small amounts of animal products," says Dr Matthew Ruby, a lecturer in Psychology at Melbourne's La Trobe University. "At the same time, there is a steady stream of innovations in plant-based products and cuisine, making it even easier for people to follow healthy and sustainable diets while continuing to enjoy their food."
The move away from unhealthy diets toward a more plant-based subsistence could help avoid approximately 11 million premature deaths per year, according to the scientists. Beyond the specifics, they also call for individuals to give greater consideration to how the food they buy is produced, implore them to consume a range of foods in order to support biodiversity in the food system, and to limit waste by avoiding overeating and making full use of their leftovers.
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