The past week’s news cycle has been full of coverage of the EAT-Lancet’s new paper:
Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems (Full text available if you create a free account with the Lancet)
It has been dubbed in the press “The Planetary Health Diet”.
The Guardian has a pretty good summary of the project and recommendations, along with a week’s worth of possible meal suggestions in their article “Seeds, kale and red meat once a month – how to eat the diet that will save the world“.
The idea that eating vegetables and reducing meat consumption might be a good idea probably isn’t that great a shock to most Guardian readers.
More typical headlines were along the lines of:
Scientists believe people should be eating less meat and more vegetables
Scientists have revealed a new diet that suggests people need to dramatically cut their consumption of meat in a groundbreaking report.
I’d hardly say that the claim to eat less meat and more vegetables is “groundbreaking”. I think this has been the general message since before I was born.
Perhaps what is groundbreaking I suppose, is their attempt to put actual numbers on the diet – i.e. how many grams per day of different food items per person is optimum for health, and also feasibly sustainable for an estimated future population of 10 million people.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants
The above mantra comes from Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules.
Though at times Pollan is prone to falling for the naturalistic fallacy, on the whole I think you can’t go too wrong following the simple rules outlined in that book.
I personally follow a diet that is basically along these lines – Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and whole grains on a daily basis, plus sustainable fish or seafood once or twice a week, and pasture raised meat/wild game around once per fortnight.
The week of meal plans in the Guardian article is very similar to what I might eat in a typical week.
So on the one hand, I really don’t think there’s anything particularly new or shocking with regards to the commissions suggestions.
But on the other hand…
My Questions Regarding the EAT-Lancet Commission Report
Now I 100% agree that they typical modern Western diet is neither sustainable for the planet, nor good for human health.
I would also agree that a shift towards a predominantly plant based diet with an emphasis on fibrous vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes and whole grains, and a complete end to industrial meat production are both goals that we should aim for.
I do however have some doubts and queries with regards to some of the more specific recommendations of the report, and indeed with the concept of a single, universal planetary diet in general.
- 2500 kCal for everyone?
I found the discussion in the paper of how they arrived at this figure pretty interesting.
Now, I’m paraphrasing obviously, but they essentially arrive at this average on the basis that the world is populated by a lot of “big sedentary people” in Europe and America, and slim active people in Asia and Africa (hey, I’m reading between the lines a bit here, but that’s what I take from it).
In the report they write:
This energy intake is higher than the intake of 2100 kcal/day used in other analyses that assumed a BMI of about 22, which is substantially lower than the global average BMI. Although an average BMI of 22 would be healthier than population averages, effective means of reversing the obesity epidemic in many countries have not been identified. Thus, assuming this BMI and a lower energy intake is risky and would leave little room for public health goals to increase physical activity because this will require additional food energy.
Surely part of the aim from public health goals aimed to increase physical activity would be help reduce excess body fat, thus ultimately reducing BMI and daily caloric needs.
It would make little sense to encourage people to be more active AND eat more calories to compensate for it. (This is what many people inadvertently do, which is why concentrating on exercise alone is not an effective weight loss strategy).
I can understand why the commission are reluctant to estimate their figures on a healthy population based on current failures to combat the obesity epidemic.
The problem is, however, that attempts to combat the obesity epidemic have so far failed as most people are unwilling to follow the very dietary advice recommended by the commission (Eat more veg, more whole grains, less meat, fat and calories).
If they believe that the problem of obesity is intractable, they are essentially admitting the defeat of their own diet in advance, so why even bother?
That said, one benefit of a 2500 kCal target could be that it’s not too overfacing. The recommended quantities are no doubt already a big ask for the vast majority of affluent consumers in the developed world who are used to eating large quantities of meat and fish on a daily basis.
Final note on calories – one would expect that we’ll see decreases in physical labour in developing countries, as technology advances, becomes cheaper, and more widely distributed.
This could be seen as a win in terms of less calories required per person, but as noted, some level of physical activity is necessary for optimum human health and well-being.
I wonder where the balance point is here? Are short burst HIIT and HIT workouts going to be the future, maintaining cardiovascular fitness and strength with minimal calorie burn? Will endurance sports become expensive or deemed impractical due to the increased energy requirements?
- You say potato, I say nutritious high yield crop…
The EAT-Lancet commission do not like spuds, or cassava.
Potatoes, although containing large concentrations of potassium and some other vitamins, provide a large amount of rapidly absorbed carbohydrate, or glycaemic load. Daily consumption has been associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes,90 hypertension,91 and weight gain.92
Globally, cassava is grown for its resilience in semi-arid conditions, but when processed into flour, as is done in Africa, it has low nutritional value and high glycaemic load, which might increase metabolic abnormalities, weight gain, and cardiometabolic disease.
The potato studies cited by the commission are problematic however, as they don’t do enough to differentiate between cooking methods.
Other studies have found that potatoes are actually associated with good health and low body weight when boiled, mashed or baked. It’s chips, french fries and crisps that are the problem.
Cassava they claim “may cause problems when processed into a flour” due to the increased G.L. The Glycaemic Load theory has been widely criticised, however, with little to no evidence to support it.
It therefore seems a little extreme to me to put such severe limits on popular, productive and sustainable crops.
In his very interesting book The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles C Mann sings the praises of both Cassava and Potatoes in the quest to feed the future 10 million:
Consider cassava, a big tuber also known as manioc, mogo, and yuca. The 11th-most-important crop in the world in terms of production, it is grown in wide swathes of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The edible part grows underground; no matter how big the tuber, the plant will never fall over. On a per-acre basis, cassava harvests far outstrip those of wheat and other cereals. The comparison is unfair, because cassava tubers contain more water than wheat kernels. But even when this is taken into account, cassava produces many more calories per acre than wheat. (The potato is a northern equivalent. The average 2016 U.S. potato yield was 43,700 pounds per acre, more than 10 times the equivalent figure for wheat.)
The report recommends aiming for around 50-60% of calories from carbohydrate, achieved via around 232g of whole grains, and 50g (to 100g) of tubers/starchy veg.
Personally it would make more sense to me to simply have an allowance of 280-320g of whole grains, tubers and starchy vegetables, with the caveat that perhaps they shouldn’t be overly processed (let’s presume that the frying of anything in general is going to be recommended against).
- Animal Products
Surprise surprise that this is the section where I have the most doubts as to the prescriptions of the report.
Again, I do agree with the recommendations that current levels of animal product consumption are unsustainable, that intensive livestock rearing is untenable, and that for the sake of the planet, and possibly our health, we do need to reduce our consumption of meat and dairy.
Where I take issue with the report however, is in its attempt to distinguish between different types of animal products – giving different daily reference values for dairy, ruminant meat, pork, poultry, eggs and fish:
- Dairy – 250g
- Beef and Lamb – 7g
- Pork – 7g
- Poultry – 29g
- Eggs – 13g
- Fish – 28g
Personally, I find these distinctions hard to justify.
As far as I can tell, the 250g of milk (or its derivatives) is based solely on calcium requirements.
This is perhaps (for me) the oddest recommendation in the guide.
The report notes that evidence for dairy consumption is inconclusive either way – there’s nothing to indicate it’s either essential, nor harmful.
On the one hand, it’s a nutrient dense food, on the other, all these nutrients can also be obtained from other foods.
The reason I think it’s particularly odd, is that a significant proportion of the world population do not consume dairy.
Beef and Lamb
Well, a good old bashing of red meat was to be expected wasn’t it.
The report recommends a tiny daily reference amount as it concludes that red meat is both unhealthy, and bad for the environment.
- Red Meat and Health
I’ve written about this many times on this blog, so not going to go into too much detail here, suffice it to say, the evidence that red meat is “bad for your health” is far from conclusive, to say the least.
The report notes that in the West, red meat consumption is often associated with increased risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
It is presumed that this correlation is probably causative.
The report also notes that in the developing world, red meat consumption is correlated with improved health and longevity.
It is presumed that this correlation is not causative, but rather that both are an artifact of increased wealth.
Perhaps these assumptions will one day turn out to be correct. But currently they are still just huge assumptions, which in my opinion do not justify the singling out of unprocessed red meat as being either “unhealthy” nor “unhealthier” than poultry or other animal products.
I could accept the singling out of processed meat – bacon, salami, hotdogs, etc – here there is some evidence of health issues. But again, the effect is very small.
The evidence that processed meat is associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer from 5% in people who consume 0g to 6% in those that contain 50g per day seems pretty robust.
But this in no way implicates unprocessed red meat.
- Ruminant Meat and the Environment
I am in 100% agreement that the intensive production of red meat is a serious threat to the planet.
Cutting down rainforest to grow corn and soy in order to fatten beef is an ecological nightmare.
It’s a misuse of land, water, fertilizer, and contributes heavily to increases in greenhouse gases via a number of pathways.
But not all red meat is created equal.
Red meat in the UK is a sustainable source of protein. It makes best use of natural resources and requires very few additional inputs. Naturally occurring rain contributes to grass growth which cattle and sheep consume and convert into high quality protein that is ideal for human consumption. It is a natural cycle which has been running for thousands of years in tune with, and complementary to, our environment.Ian Stevenson – Livestock and Meat Commission for N.I.
I’ve already written about the benefits of grass fed beef and the ethics of farming livestock in the UK before, so won’t go into it again here, but I think it’s crazy that the report simply concludes “red meat bad”.
Another odd one.
The report concluded that there’s no evidence to conclude that there’s any harmful effect from eating up to one egg per day, that eggs can be a crucial source of nutrition, particularly for children in developing countries with poor nutrition, doesn’t put forward a case for environmental harm, but then limits their consumption to 1.5 per week.
Fish and Seafood
This one I can’t argue with too much.
There does seem to be reasonable evidence that there are concrete health benefits from consuming some fish and seafood.
Whether this is actually because they have special properties, however, is hard to say.
Perhaps pastured meat, dairy and eggs which are rich in essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals might provide the same benefits, without the problems of overfishing and heavy metal contamination!
Oranges are not the only fruit
I can’t help but note that this list of animal products is very limited.
What about wild game? What about the diversification of animals and animal products consumed?
The report pays brief lip service to the idea of edible insects, but doesn’t actually explore the idea further.
More than just calories
Though the report does acknowledge in various passages that animal products are nutrient dense, and can play very important roles in nutrition security for at risk populations, it then goes onto make it’s overall assessment of meat and dairy sustainability based on environmental impact per calorie.
This overlooks the fact that animal products are incredibly nutrient dense, much more nutrient dense per calorie than plant foods.
It also overlooks the fact that animals also produce other products such as leather, gelatine, keratin, etc, and that their manure, blood and bones can be used to fertilize crops.
The solution is much more complicated
While I do agree that the West probably does need to significantly reduce its animal product consumption, and that intensive livestock rearing needs to come to an end ASAP, the specific recommendations of the report are far too simplistic for my liking.
Animal products need to be part of the solution.
Red meat and dairy from animals raised on hilly pasture and woodland that isn’t arable.
Pigs and chickens fed on waste cereals, vegetables and peelings that would otherwise go to landfill.
But how much 100% grass fed beef and lamb can actually be produced per person with a population of 10 million people? This I honestly have no idea, and quite possibly it averages out to a lot less than 7g per person per day?
Global vs Local
The notion that we could/should calculate how much of a food the world can sustainably produce, then divide this quantity by 10 million people sounds very egalitarian.
It does indeed seem very unfair that rich people in the West should be feasting on beef, while poor people in developing countries have to make do with rice and beans.
Unfortunately, however, the laws of physics and biology dictate that a homogenous global diet is not realistically a sustainable option.
To suggest that the environmental impact of a steak, a mango, tuna, or a bowl of quinoa is the same regardless of whether the consumer is living in the UK, Brazil, the Maldives or the Andes simply does not make any sense.
One cannot say whether any of these foods are sustainable or not. Each one can be produced sustainably to some level, in certain areas, at certain times of the year.
Equally, every food becomes less and less sustainable as we begin to demand it in higher quantities, at any time of year, anywhere in the world.
I am neither a Wizard nor a Prophet. I don’t believe that we have to go back to organic subsistence farming of traditional crops, nor that science can solve everything and we can just produce what we need on the moon.
Rather, I think probably that the answer probably lies somewhere in-between.
We can work with what evolution has already come up with, then refine it and improve it to increase yields, resistance to pests and disease, nutrient density and so on.
Essentially, this is what we’ve been doing for 1000s of years.
Unfortunately, in many cases these improvements have come with hidden costs that we’re only just now discovering – climate change, soil erosion, pollution, antibiotic resistance, dead zones in rivers and oceans from hypoxia, to name but a few.
This doesn’t mean, however, it was all for nothing or a waste of time. We just need to keep learning from our mistakes, and continue to proceed with caution.
Regardless of any advancements we make however, we will still always have the constraints of geography and climate, which will mean that the sustainability of a food will always depend upon its location.
Food for Pleasure, Carrying Capacity, and Capitalism
Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants, sounds pretty reasonable, and though it may take people a while to adjust to it, I don’t think it’s a totally unfeasible aim (previous concerns aside).
I do think there are some other questions that the report overlooks however.
- Trouble Brewing?
I can foresee a future where people reduce their meat consumption. But tea, coffee and booze? I’m not so sure!
Coffee is the most popular beverage worldwide, with global sales worth €42 billion a year, and tea is not far behind.
Tea and coffee are most likely pretty neutral with regards to health.
From a public health perspective, it would probably be beneficial if alcohol consumption were drastically reduced.
Good luck with that though. They tried to stop people drinking in the US via prohibition, and that didn’t work out quite as planned…
The fact remains however, that all of these beverages require land, water and resources that could potentially otherwise be put towards the production of nutritious food.
Living in Spain, the one crop I pass more than any other when out hiking through the countryside are vines. Spain has 2.9 million acres of vineyards!
The landscapes of the mediterranean were transformed by our bacchanalian tendencies from arid wilderness, to innumerable rows of neatly terraced vines over thousands of years.
One can only imagine the back breaking work this must have been in medieval times, and it was all done, not to feed and nourish the population, but to inebriate them.
So my question is how does our love of caffeine and alcohol consumption fit into the EAT-Lancet’s recommendations?
- Carrying Capacity
The answer to the above question, ultimately depends upon the carrying capacity of the planet.
The term originally came from livestock farming, and referred to the maximum number of animals that could be raised on a piece of land.
Picture cows in a field. There are only so many cows that can thrive on one piece of pasture. Add too many cows, and they will eat the grass faster than it can regrow, and they will begin to starve.
Intensive livestock farming gets around this issue, by importing animal feed grown elsewhere, thus vastly increasing the number of animals that can be kept on a piece of land.
We also do this at the human level. There are already many countries that are way over their carrying capacity. Their populations survive thanks to food imports from other countries.
The fear, however, and motivation for projects such as the EAT-Lancet commission, is that perhaps we are rapidly approaching global carrying capacity.
We’re running out of arable land and fresh water, driving climate change, and having severe impact on the biodiversity and stability of the planet.
There is little agreement upon exactly what the carrying capacity of the earth might be, but it doesn’t seem to be unreasonable that the amount of food we can produce is finite, and that as yet, we don’t have the option of importing it from elsewhere.
Optimists believe that with science and technological progress, we’ll continue to increase yields and minimise negative environmental impacts, and that the population will stabilise long before we reach any potential carrying capacity.
Pessimists however warn that we could be hurtling towards a cliff edge. Intensification of farming might lead to such severe soil depletion, soil erosion, and global warming, that the carrying capacity of the planet falls precipitously, thus leading to mass starvation (and with it war, anarchy and pestilence no doubt).
Optimists point out that the pessimists have been naysaying for decades, and yet technology continues to prevail.
Pessimists point out that though we may be currently producing more than enough food to (potentially) feed the world population, the road here was not a smooth one…
One might think that some kind of variant of Pascal’s Wager might be applicable. That it’s better to er on the side of caution, than risk the apocalypse.
All we have to do is get everyone to have fewer babies, eat less meat, and give up caffeine and alcohol…
Capitalism vs Communism
The idea of a universal diet, optimum for both individual and planetary health, where food is grown purely based on its nutritional value and ecological impact, then distributed evenly among the world’s population based on need sounds like a fantastic plan.
It also sounds a lot like communism, which again, sounds like a fantastic plan on paper. In practice however, it hasn’t generally worked out so well.
I’m reminded of the following passage from Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus:
I have a feeling, that even if it were possible for a group of experts to accurately calculate the optimum diet for health and planetary sustainability, one would still be left with the problem of figuring out how to organise its production, and to convince people to eat it.
Not that I’m suggesting that free market capitalism is going to save us.
On the contrary, many would argue that it is free market capitalism that has got us into this mess in the first place – that it was the production of food for profit, rather than to feed and nourish, that resulted in the obesity epidemic and unsustainable production practices.
Perhaps there is some truth to this, but on the other hand, it’s free market capitalism combined with scientific progress that have got us to the stage where we are now where famine and hunger are a rarity, rather than the norm, for perhaps the first time since the agricultural revolution.
I also believe that people should be free to choose what foods they buy and eat, and that farmers should be free to choose which foods they produce, and set the prices at which they sell them.
That said, it’s also going to be necessary that governments and non profit organisations work harder to educate people with regards to the effects the choices they make have upon their health and the health of the planet.
Furthermore, I think it’s going to be necessary to regulate how farmers produce their crops and raise their livestock with some combination of laws, taxes and subsidies.
For example banning the routine use of antibiotics in livestock farming, stricter regulation on the use of fertilizers to prevent runoff into water systems, and subsidising farms that produce nutritious sustainable foods (rather than subsidising monocrop mega farms of corn and soy as happens at the moment).
My Planetary Health Diet
As you may have gathered, my diet isn’t radically different from the one recommended by the EAT-Lancet commission.
A typical day for me would be:
Porridge made with water, with a free range egg, milled seeds, raisins and a spoon of honey
Dal Bhat (Rice and Lentils) with Mushroom Curry (not reishi…)
Grilled Whole Mackerel, with “escalivada” (local dish made of roasted aubergine, pepper and onion) and “pan con tomate” (bread with olive oil and squashed tomato)
Full fat yoghurt from pasture raised cows, with sliced fruit and mixed nuts
Key differences from the EAT-Lancet recommendations:
- I eat on average 1 egg per day, perhaps a little more
- I eat more than 29g of fish and seafood a week (I typically have fish 2-3 x per week), though always sticking to local, sustainable species
- I very rarely eat chicken or pork
- I eat around 200g pasture raised beef or lamb or wild game 2-3 times per month
- I eat some fermented dairy most days – yoghurt or cheese
- I drink beer and wine 2-3 times per week.
- All of the above I source locally, mostly from Spain (Including a small veg patch in the back garden).
- I drink coffee every day.
The coffee is the only product I consume regularly that isn’t locally produced.
I choose shade grown coffee from an independent producer.
Currently I (like to?) believe that my coffee consumption has a net positive effect.
Aside from keeping my local coffee shop in business, and many other people to whom I am all grateful, there’s plenty of evidence that exports such as coffee can be of great benefit to the countries that produce them.
Will this still be the case in 2050 with a population of 10 million? Or will you be incentivising a farmer to produce coffee for export, while his neighbours are desperate for food and water, but lack the purchasing power of the developed world?
That I can’t answer, but for now I think I’m OK to keep on enjoying my daily cuppa.
The thought of a future where every available scrap of arable land has to be intensively and sustainably farmed to its limit just to produce enough food to nourish the population is a pretty sobering one.
Perhaps more sobering however, is that much of the world’s population don’t even achieve these meagre levels of nutrition right now. Coffee and wine are the least of your worries when you live with constant under nutrition and total lack of food security.
Hopefully we can manage to slow the population boom, increase both the abundance of high quality food and its distribution, so we can all have our coffee and drink it!