The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet.
Never have so many people had so much to eat. In 2016, 1.9 billion adults were overweight worldwide while 600 million of people over 18 were classified as obese, according to the World Health Organization. In several countries like the United States, New Zealand, Mexico and Hungary, around a third of adults are obese. Millions upon millions of children are overweight or obese too.
Gluttonous diets aren’t just unhealthy. They’re also environmentally unsustainable. As the planet’s population continues to grow, with 10 billion people expected to inhabit Earth by 2050, and more people are becoming wealthier in developing nations, global food production is bound to place increasing strains on the natural environment. Factor in the colossal amounts of food wasted, and the situation is pretty bleak.
“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,” stresses Professor Tim Lang, an expert at City University of London, one of the authors of a new paper published by The Lancet. A three-year project, the study was conducted by a commission of 37 experts from 16 countries whose expertise range from health and nutrition to environmental sustainability and food systems to economics and political governance.
“We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before in ways appropriate to each country’s circumstances,” Lang proposes. “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.”
Several current food consumption patterns would be wholly unsustainable if adopted on a global scale, the scientists point out. People in North America, for instance, eat almost 6.5 times the recommended amount of red meat on average.
People in all the countries surveyed eat more starchy vegetables (potatoes and cassava) than recommended. Their intakes range from 1.5 times the recommend amount in South Asia to 7.5 times the recommended amount in sub-Saharan Africa.
The experts argue that drastic changes in global diets will be needed in coming years and decades. For instance, they are calling for a 50% reduction in staples such as red meat and sugar by 2050, while arguing that the consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes should be doubled.
“The world’s diets must change dramatically. More than 800 million people have insufficient food, while many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and disease,” says Dr. Walter Willett, of Harvard University, who worked on the recommendations. “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.”
Changing dietary habits would be beneficial both to people and the environment. The production of red meat is a major contributor to greenhouse emissions in the form of methane and CO2, for instance, so cutting beef consumption significantly would reduce both health risks and emissions. Nor will developed world-style gluttony be sustainable on a vast scale once 10 billion people live on the planet.
“Humanity now poses a threat to the stability of the planet. Sustainability of the food system must therefore be defined from a planetary perspective,” says Professor Johan Rockström, of the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden. “Our definition of sustainable food production requires that we use no additional land, safeguard existing biodiversity, reduce consumptive water use and manage water responsibly, substantially reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, produce zero carbon dioxide emissions, and cause no further increase in methane and nitrous oxide emissions,” he elucidates.
“There is no silver bullet for combatting harmful food production practices, but by defining and quantifying a safe operating space for food systems, diets can be identified that will nurture human health and support environmental sustainability,” Rockström adds.