The Planetary Health Plate — Harvard University (Google Images)
If they are not doing so already, the “Planetary Health Diet” — low in red meat and sugar, high in fruits, vegetables, and nuts — is what our children and grandchildren will most likely be eating in the not-too-distant future. In a new report published in the journal The Lancet, the EAT-Lancet Commission lays out a new strategy to feed an increasing global population, improve health, and protect the planet from environmental and resource degradation. Brian Bienkowski outlines the global scientific panel’s ideas for ensuring food security in a world that our kids will have to share with 10 billion other human inhabitants by 2050:
- Encourage people to eat healthy diets high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, with less meat (for most countries) and sugar;
- Incentivize more small and medium farms and diversity within production;
- Protect land, oceans and the biodiversity and habitats within them by prohibiting land clearing, restoring degraded land, stopping exploitive fishing and keeping some ocean areas off limits to fishing;
- Curb freshwater use;
- Reduce fossil fuel emissions;
- Cut the amount of current food waste in half.
Harvard School of Public Health professor Walter Willett, M.D. figures it won’t be easy — at least for many of my generation:
Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts. Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.
In addition to the substantial environmental and climate benefits predicted in the report, the expected improvements in health are impressive, says Nina Avramova:
If the new diet were adopted globally, 10.9 to 11.6 million premature deaths could be avoided every year — equating to 19% to 23.6% of adult deaths. A reduction in sodium and an increase in whole grains, nuts, vegetables and fruits contributed the most to the prevention of deaths, according to one of the report’s models.
Late last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report urging deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” While shifting energy generation away from fossil fuels and towards renewables seems to have received the most attention, better land use policies and changes in agricultural practices are vital in humanity’s efforts to stem average global temperature rise at 1.5°C — the point, practically every Earth, Space, and Climate scientist on the planet agrees, when things really hit the fan. As Bienkowski discovered, the stakes are high:
If we do not transform the food system, said co-author Johan Rockström, a researcher and professor in environmental science at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, “we are very unlikely to lift humanity out of hunger” and “very likely” to fail on international goals such as the Paris Climate Agreement.
However, on the flip side, there are “win-win opportunities here … adopting healthy diets help us with both climate and sustainable development goals,” Rockström said.
“Adopting a healthy reference diet combined with reducing food waste and investing in scientific technology … can take us to the place we want to be,” he said.
Reducing food waste — in the U.S. about 30% of food is thrown away without being eaten — is a big part of the planetary health prescription, according to Sarah Gibbens:
Strategies to reduce waste are outlined for both consumers and producers in the report. Better storage technology and contamination spotting could help businesses reduce the amount of food that’s thrown out, but educating consumers is also touted as an effective strategy.
Transforming eating habits and reducing waste may seem like a tall order in our land of plenty, but there is too much at stake — our own health and the health of the planet — to resist change. We can expect the decisions we make now to impact not only our health and well-being, but, more importantly, the health and well-being of future generations. Children will eat what adults feed them. As difficult as it may seem, it’s up to us, not them (at least not yet), to make the right decisions.
We all have our work cut out for us, don’t we?