In the current context of climate change and unstainable and unhealthy diets, food systems must transition to provide adequate, accessible, available, and nutritious food for all through sustainable means. In 2019, insufficient food was affecting more than 820 million people and many more were eating low-quality diets resulting in diet-related diseases. Food systems are the principal driver of biodiversity loss and account for one-third of the global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE). The objective is to pair the health and sustainable agenda for food systems to adequately feed a growing population while ensuring a stable Earth system.
In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission proposed Planetary Health Diet, referring to the role of diets in combining human health with the state of the natural system to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement.
The planetary health concept is twofold: one target relates to healthy diets, and one deals with sustainable food production.
“Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.” – The commission.
Food, the essence of human life
Food can play a substantial role in human health. Therefore, it is crucial to adopt a healthy diet. A “planetary health plate” should mainly be composed of fruits and vegetables, and its consumption needs to double in current diets. On the contrary, consuming processed red meat was linked to increased mortality and morbidity risk. Unprocessed red meats were also, to a lower extent, associated with cardiovascular disease. Despite data scarcity, white meats were not related to increased mortality. The Commission acknowledged that transitioning toward healthier diets, such as the Planetary Health Diet, would prevent nearly 11 million deaths annually.
The Planetary Health Diet provides a baseline regarding food groups and ranges of intake. It also highlights the importance of diversity in food consumption, as a vital element of a healthy diet is consuming various food products. Progress could be achieved in this direction as out of 14,000 edible plant species, only 150-200 are used by humans, where only three (rice, maize, and wheat) represent 60% of the calories consumed by humans.
Across the globe, differences between the environmental and political context, culture, and wealth, to name a few, are noticeable and are as diverse as the food varieties and breeds. These diversities also emphasize the need of tailoring the Planetary Health Diet according to each context.
Curbing the environmental impact of food production
Evidence exhibits that food production is the main driver of global environmental change. To counteract this, conservation and precision agriculture, sustainable and ecological intensification, and agroecological, diversified, and organic farming systems must become mainstream. Most of these approaches enhance sustainability at the farm scale, focusing principally on a system with no nutrient leakage into local groundwater and rivers. Measures aiming at supporting a stable Earth system must be context specific as biophysical parameters differ worldwide. Farmers hold a key role in this regard through their agricultural practice choices. In low-income countries, agricultural extension programmes targeting nutrition and food security are crucial to providing information and skills to rural farmers, so they adopt sustainable agricultural practices.
In general, farmers are caught in a loop that demands cheap commodities in large quantities which jeopardises their food security, overshadows the real value of food, and fosters unsustainable farming practices. To curb this, taxes should be applied on food to provide adequate incomes for farmers and reflect the true costs of food. Shortening the food value chain by giving market access and off-farm opportunities to farmers is prominent in reducing the volatility of food prices as there will be fewer stakeholders involved in the food supply. This will provide decent livelihoods to farmers as they will have more control of the market. Finally, the local and regional population will also draw health benefits from this proximity to farmers by obtaining fresh, unprocessed and seasonal food.
According to the type of food, the environmental impact varies. In 2018, the combination of all activities related to livestock represented 51% of GHGE from food production. This emphasizes the importance of adopting more sustainable food production practices and the need to produce fewer amounts of food that harm the environment, such as animal products.
The Commission promoted the harmonisation of parameters assessing sustainable food production to enable consistency. Grounded on the planetary boundaries framework, six key Earth system processes were identified in which boundaries were proposed: 1) Climate change, 2) biodiversity loss, 3) land system change, 4) Freshwater use, 5) Nitrogen flow, and 6) Phosphorus flow. Global food production should respect these boundaries to diminish the irreversible risk and potentially catastrophic events in the Earth system.
In a nutshell, to achieve planetary health diets, the Commission outlined three points: 1) A global shift toward healthy diets, 2) An enhancement of food production practices to be more sustainable, and 3) A reduction of food loss and waste.
The Commission acknowledged that radical cross-sector and multi-level measures must immediately be deemed to downscale the likelihood of serious and disastrous consequences. The development of sustainable food systems will also increase the resilience of food systems to cope with various events such as wars, pandemics or natural disasters. Finally, the Commission claimed for an integrated approach to shifting food systems, including society, economy, culture, and animal welfare.
“We need to recalibrate food and farming system towards producing smaller quantities of healthier, nutrient-dense food, in harmony with local climates, cultures and ecosystems.” – The Commission.
A criticised report
The report has received a lot of critics due to omissions in the documentation, methodological flaws in assumptions, and data collection and modelling. Therefore, these have altered the outcomes of the report. The report has been associated with low replicability and reliability of results. In some cases, the effects of red and processed meat consumption have been conflated. The recommended diet is asserted as being based on an unspecified modelling approach that might overpromise the mortalities avoided and provide a solution benefiting high-income countries. Some have argued towards undeclared conflicts of interests of the lead author of the report, but others can perceive this as a backfire response by the meat-eaters groups
Reporting by David Mingasson.