Two new publications were released in the last week that contribute much new food for thought in the global discussion around the sustainability of the Earth’s food systems.
First off, on January 16th the Lancet published a special feature called “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.” As Reuters reports, the prominent health journal commissioned the study that involved 37 specialists from 16 countries working together to identify an ideal “Planetary Health Diet.”
The research team notes that “unhealthy diets currently cause more death and disease worldwide than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined” (Kelland, 2019). Thus, if widely adopted, their proposed Planetary Health Diet could prevent, by their estimate, more than 11 million deaths a year, while cutting greenhouse gas emissions and preserving land, water, and biodiversity.
What does this miracle diet look like?
Consistent with long-standing dietary advice from the U.S. government, the researchers call for humans to double consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. So far, so good.
But the Lancet team also calls for humanity to cut meat and intake by half — a recommendation that goes well beyond current U.S. dietary guidelines and triggered a predictable response from meat industry groups.
Along with this transformation of eating habits, we would also need to improve production efficiency, and reduce food waste.
The detailed report in the Lancet, which is available in full text here, goes deeper and also provides a basic framework for what they call the “Great Food Transition.” They propose five core strategies to achieve this monumental change:
- “Seek international and national commitment to shift towards healthy diets,
- Reorient agricultural priorities from producing large quantities of food to producing healthy food,
- Sustainably intensify food production, generating high-quality output,
- Strong and coordinated governance of land and oceans,
- At least halve food loss and waste, in line with global SDGs [sustainable development goals]” (Willett et al., 2019)
A few days later on January 24th, a second publication by the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation was announced at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Swizerland. This report looks specifically at how cities are poised to play a key role in the development of this new sustainable food system, this time by applying the principles of a circular economy.
The argument is that modern agriculture production relies on resource extraction, produces too many greenhouse gases, and “pollutes air, water, and soil,” while pesticide residues in food can also have negative health impacts. So, while it remains true that “what you eat matters…how it has been produced matters as well. You could very well be eating healthy, but still be exposed to the negative impacts because of the way food is produced,” says the report’s lead author Clementine Schouteden, as reported by Reuters (Win, 2019).
Rather than this typical linear approach (resources—food production — emissions), the Foundation instead proposes a shift to a circular economy where waste and pollution are “designed out” of the system through re-use and waste reduction, products and materials are kept in use as long as possible, and natural systems are regenerated and use of non-renewable resources minimized.
The result will be a food system that “improves rather than degrades the environment” and ensures that “all people have access to healthy and nutritious food” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019).
Since cities are expected to account for the vast majority of food consumption by 2050, the Foundation felt they were uniquely situated to help drive this major shift in our food economy. They propose three focus areas:
- “Source food grown regeneratively, and locally where appropriate,
- Make the most of food,
- Design and market healthier food products.”
The Foundation also took a close look at four focus cities to see how the principles outlined in their report could potentially be applied in urban regions with different demographic and socio-economic conditions. The full report contains a section on each on: Brussels, Belgium; Guelph, Canada; Porto, Portugal; and São Paulo, Brazil. While the analysis remains theoretical and aspirational, these case studies do provide a glimpse of a possible, future reality where food production replenishes economic and natural resources, rather than depleting them.
Both the special report by the Lancet, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “Cities and Circular Economy for Food” make the case for drastic changes in our daily diets and our food economy. With all the challenges facing food and farming today, from resistant weeds to superbugs, climate change to soil depletion, population growth and energy demands, it is good to see fresh thinking from people challenged to envision paths forward to a more sustainable future. A refreshing change from the stale and, as is often argued, untrue, “GM foods will save the day” mantra that we have been stuck on for the past couple decades.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation,”Cities and Circular Economy for Food,” January 24, 2019.
Kate Kelland, “Scientists reveal ‘ideal diet’ for peoples’ and planet’s health,” Reuters, January 17, 2019.
Thin Lei Win, “Is there a ‘circular’ solution to the world’s food problems?,” Reuters, January 23, 2019.
Willett W et al. “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems,” The Lancet, 2019, doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(18)31788-4.