Feeding the planet: a call for radical action

A report released in The Lancet heralds the launch of a concerted effort to generate urgently needed solutions for feeding our growing population – estimated to hit 10 billion people by the year 2050.

Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets for sustainable food systems addresses the need for healthy diets within the constraints of planetary resources to salvage a “civilisation in crisis”.

These goals will not be possible, the authors argue, without unprecedented global collaboration and dedication to changing people’s eating habits, overhauling food production and cutting food waste.

In line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for healthy diets and the Paris Agreement on climate change, the report calls for targets to reduce meat and sugar consumption by half and more than double our intake of plant foods including vegetables, legumes, fruit, and nuts.

This diet, according to the 51-page report, is a “win-win” for health and the planet. “Diets inextricably link human health and environmental sustainability,” it states.

The EAT-Lancet Commission, based in Stockholm, comprises 37 experts from a diverse range of disciplines in 16 countries, with the mission “to advance the development of scientific targets for healthy diets from environmentally sustainable food production”.

Our defunct food system is a global health problem, the commission writes, with much of the population undernourished, malnourished or over nourished. 

Unhealthy, highly processed diets now confer the largest burden of disease, creating a global epidemic of chronic diseases including obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

And, the report contends, current methods to produce food are the largest contributor to environmental destruction.

Sustainable food production, explains co-lead commissioner Johan Rockström, from the Sweden and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, means using no further land, protecting existing biodiversity, managing water responsibly and reducing water use.

It also entails lowering nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, emitting zero carbon dioxide and maintaining environmental sustainability.

Achieving these goals will be no mean feat, requiring “[n]othing less than a new global agricultural revolution,” Rockström acknowledges.

The commission stresses it is not proposing a magic bullet or simple fix, rather that the “safe operating space for food systems will require implementation of a variety and multitude of solutions and innovations”.

And the report emphasises that what it calls the Great Food Transformation “can only be achieved with all actors in all parts of the food system working collectively towards this transformation”.

The Lancet’s editorial emphasises the importance of addressing social and political barriers.

“The triple challenges of obesity, undernutrition and climate change, which interact and affect human and planetary health, need solutions that disrupt their common underlying societal and political drivers,” it says.

Despite the immense action that is needed, the group believes the targets are achievable.

“We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before in ways appropriate to each country’s circumstances,” says co-author Tim Lang, from the University of London, UK.

“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.

“The scientific targets we have devised for a healthy sustainable diet are an important foundation which will underpin and drive this change.”

The report proposes five key strategies to transform the global food system. They include comprehensive policies to encourage people to adopt healthier diets, making them more accessible and more affordable.

Agriculture needs to be converted from high volume to diverse, nutrient-rich crops using research, policies and incentives. Concentrating agricultural practices in a sustainable manner is also key.

Policies to preserve natural land and ocean ecosystems are outlined, along with multi-level strategies to halve food waste.

Attempts thus far to overhaul unhealthy diets and protect the Earth’s resources have failed, highlighting a need to do things differently.

Richard Horton, Editor-in Chief at The Lancet, says the change “requires a focus on complex systems, incentives and regulations, with communities and governments at multiple levels having a part to play in redefining how we eat”.

“Our connection with nature holds the answer, and if we can eat in a way that works for our planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance of the planet’s resources will be restored.

“The very nature that is disappearing holds the key to human and planetary survival.”

Australian scientists wholeheartedly embrace the report.

“This is a wake-up call for all governments worldwide, including Australia,” says Brian Morris, from the University of Sydney.

He adds that Australia should enact a task force to address current agricultural practices, implementing measures including education and legislation, using “a ‘nudge’, and a sledgehammer if necessary”.

“The issue is far too important for our politicians to sit on their hands while giving free rein to unsustainable farming practices devoted to producing food which is damaging to health, and to the mass production of processed food.”

ScienceAlert founder Julian Cribb hails the report as “a timely warning of a crisis which is totally avoidable, provided governments and the food industry globally acknowledge its imminence and agree to act together to solve it.”

Changing the world’s diet, along with comprehensive measures to transform the whole global food system, Cribb adds, “will not only secure the world’s food supply, it will create a chance to end the Sixth Extinction”.

Sonia Nuttman, sustainable food systems expert and associate lecturer at Deakin University, says we don’t have any choice. “The health of our planet and future populations depends on it.”

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