‘Planetary Health Diet’ Would Cut Emissions, Protect Biodiversity by Halving Red Meat Consumption
The world’s first-ever science-based “planetary health diet” is calling for a “new global agricultural revolution” in which red meat and sugar consumption is cut by half, and vegetable, fruit, pulse, and nut consumption double, in order to avert 11 million deaths per year, curtail the devastating climate impacts of industrial agriculture, and protect biodiversity.
“The world’s diets must change dramatically,” said Harvard University epidemiology and nutrition professor Walter Willett, one of the lead authors in an international commission assembled by The Lancet, a prestigious UK medical journal, and the Eat Forum NGO. But “we are not talking about a deprivation diet here; we are talking about a way of eating that can be healthy, flavourful, and enjoyable.”
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“The planetary health diet is based on really hard epidemiological evidence, where researchers followed large cohorts of people for decades,” explained commission member and Oxford University food policy specialist Marco Springmann. “It so happens that if you put all that evidence together, you get a diet that looks similar to some of the healthiest diets that exist in the real world.”
The report was published last week in the Lancet and launched to policy-makers in 40 cities around the world.
The commissioners called their diet plan a “win-win” that would prevent “deaths caused by unhealthy food, while preventing the collapse of the natural world that humanity depends upon,” The Guardian reports. “The diet addresses the major role of farming—especially livestock—in driving climate change, the destruction of wildlife, and the pollution of rivers and oceans.”
While the diet calls for a 50% reduction in global consumption of red meat and sugar, “in specific places the changes are stark,” The Guardian notes. “North Americans need to eat 84% less red meat but six times more beans and lentils. For Europeans, eating 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds meets the guidelines.”
Taken as a whole, the planetary health diet “is largely plant-based and allows an average of 2,500 calories a day,” The Guardian adds. “It allows one beef burger and two servings of fish a week, but most protein comes from pulses and nuts. A glass of milk a day, or some cheese or butter, fits within the guidelines, as does an egg or two a week. Half of each plate of food under the diet is vegetables and fruit, and a third is wholegrain cereals.”
The report also called for higher farm yields in poorer countries, and for food waste to be cut from 30 to 15%.
“The numbers for red meat sound small to a lot of people in the UK or U.S.,” Willett said. “But they don’t sound small to the very large part of the world’s population that already consumes about that much or even less. It is very much in line with traditional diets.”
At the same time, the authors acknowledge the depth and difficulty of the change they’re calling for. “Humanity has never aimed to change the global food system on the scale envisioned,” the report states. “Achieving this goal will require rapid adoption of numerous changes and unprecedented global collaboration and commitment: nothing less than a Great Food Transformation.”
At the same time, the commission report “notes that major global changes have occurred before, such as the Green Revolution that hugely increased food supplies in the 1960s,” The Guardian notes. “Moves to tax red meat, prevent the expansion of farmland, and protect swathes of ocean must all be considered, the commission said.”
The Tyee’s story on the commission report says Canada could lead the way in the adoption of a planetary diet that is “clean, green, and Anthropocene.” The country’s daily food intake averaged 3,419 calories per person in 2015, writes Contributing Editor Crawford Kilian, compared to 2,807 in 1961.
“Clearly, over the past 60 years our eating habits have changed, and it’s ironic that over a half-century of rising global prosperity has changed the eating habits of billions of others, as well,” he states. The side effects include diseases like SARS and avian influenza jumping from animals to humans, a global obesity epidemic, and rapid increases in the rates of diabetes and heart disease.
“The world is not going to abandon junk food and sugary drinks overnight,” Kilian adds. “Pastoral peoples from the Mongols to the Maasai to the Albertans will define themselves by their livestock until heat and drought kill off their herds.”
But “Canada can lead that transition by subsidizing production of sustainable foods and encouraging research into growing such foods under rapidly changing climatic conditions. Much of the Central American migration to the U.S. is driven by a persistent drought. If we can develop crops that thrive on little water, fewer ruined farmers will head north in desperation.”