An ambitious report on the global food system from a commission convened by the prestigious medical journal The Lancet calls for a radical change in food production—or, as one of the authors put it: “Nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution.”
It’s the latest research to emphasize that the futures of the climate and human health are deeply intertwined. In order to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the climate, the world needs a “comprehensive shift” in its diet, the authors say.
“The dominant diets that the world has been producing and eating for the past 50 years are no longer nutritionally optimal, are a major contributor to climate change, and are accelerating erosion of natural biodiversity,” The Lancet’s editors write in a commentary accompanying the report, released Wednesday.
The authors—a commission of 37 experts from 16 countries, across a range of disciplines—propose scientific targets for diet and food production to improve human health and help achieve the ambitions of the Paris climate agreement, as well as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
The overhaul the authors envision encompasses the entire food system, from how farmers treat the soil and what crops they chose to plant to a global shift toward plant-based diets.
They call for cutting meat consumption in half, cutting food waste by half, and transforming the agricultural system into a powerful carbon sink within three decades by swapping resource-intensive farming methods for those that regenerate soil and limit fertilizer demand.
“This is the first time we’ve scientifically integrated health research with sustainability science in defining quantitative scientific targets,” explained Johan Rockström, one of the authors and director designate of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who described it as a call for a new global agricultural revolution.
“We have scientific evidence that if we do not transform the food system … we are very unlikely to be successful with the UN agenda,” he said. “We’re also very likely to fail on the Paris climate agreement because food plays such an important role in the transition to a safe climate future.”
‘Uncharted Policy Territory’
The targets, the authors say, can be a “win-win” for human health and environmental sustainability, allowing the world to feed a projected 10 billion people by 2050. But reaching the targets, the authors concede, will be extremely challenging and assumes that countries intend to meet their pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris agreement.
“A transformation of the global food system should ultimately involve multiple stakeholders, from individual consumers to policy makers and all actors in the food supply chain, working together towards the shared global goal of healthy and sustainable diets for all,” the report says. “However, humanity has never aimed to change the global food system on the scale envisioned in this Commission; this objective is uncharted policy territory and the problems outlined in this Commission are not easily fixed.”
Agriculture consumes about 40 percent of global land, while food production contributes about 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in food production practices could cut agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent in 2050, and wide adoption of plant-based diets could further reduce agricultural emissions by up to 80 percent, the authors say.
“This serious, well-researched report provides ample and compelling evidence for the proposition that agricultural policy needs to be firmly linked to health policy,” said Marion Nestle, a prominent nutrition policy expert and author, who was not affiliated with the report. “Both need to support diets that simultaneously promote human and planetary health, meaning those that are largely, not necessarily exclusively, plant-based.”
Getting the World Healthy
Global intake of unhealthy foods in going up, and intake of healthy foods is going down, the authors report, leading to malnutrition, higher obesity rates and diet-related diseases. About 800 million people still don’t have enough food, despite the improvements in agriculture over the past century.
“The agriculture sector has for a very long time focused on a few staple products—maize, rice, wheat—and has not really focused on fruits and vegetables,” said Jessica Fanzo, of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and a co-author of the report. “The agriculture sector has been successful in feeding the world; it has not been successful in feeding the world well.”
The nutrition research suggests that the ideal diet consists “mostly of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, including a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and includes no or a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables,” the report says. Under their recommended diet, global consumption of red meat will have to drop by 50 percent and consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes will have to double.
The shift could save between 11 and 12 million lives a year by lowering diet-related conditions and diseases, such as obesity and diabetes.
Would Populations Make This Kind of Change?
The changes proposed are ambitious, not least because a growing middle class in the developing world, particularly China, is demanding more animal-based foods. Even a small increase in global meat and dairy consumption could make the targets beyond reach, the report says. North Americans already eat six times more than the recommended amount of red meat of about 14 grams a week, the report says.
In addition to cutting food waste and halving meat consumption, the report calls for creating national and international dietary commitments, shifting agricultural policies toward producing healthier foods, employing more sustainable, “climate friendly” farming practices and crafting stronger policies on land and ocean management, including those that restrict expansion of cropland.
In the United States, most of these will prove especially challenging.
Despite efforts from nutritionists and researchers, the government’s dietary guidance does not clearly call for cutting red meat consumption, largely because of a decades-long effort by the meat industry. In the last round of the Dietary Guidelines development process, an advisory committee contemplated including sustainability in the government recommendations, but under pressure from the meat industry, the committee’s advice to eat less meat was ultimately scuttled.
Several other countries, including Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom, have explicitly advised citizens to cut meat consumption. Nutrition experts are again advocating that environmental considerations be factored into the government’s nutrition advice.
U.S. agricultural policy, meanwhile, has long emphasized the growing of commodity crops, including soy and corn, which occupy the vast majority of American crop acreage and provide little direct nutrition.
“We really need to shift toward producing healthy foods—not only for humans, but for the planet as well,” Fanzo said. “Agricultural priorities need to shift.”