There is considerable evidence that links food with human health and environmental sustainability; however, the current state of food production, distribution, consumption, and waste threatens both people and the planet.
A radical transformation of the global food system is urgently needed to produce high quantities of nutritious food for all, while promoting climate stability and ecosystem resilience for a growing population. Though this urgent need has been acknowledged internationally, an absence of global consensus on evidence-based targets for healthy diets, sustainable food production, and the policies that uphold them have hindered coordinated efforts to make necessary changes to our global food system and the way we eat.
Three years ago, EAT and The Lancet launched a joint commission to establish these global scientific targets. They began with one prickly question: what diet pattern is healthiest for both people and the planet?
"Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.”
To answer this question, the EAT-Lancet Commission convened 37 leading scientists from 16 countries across several disciplines, including health sciences, environmental sustainability, agriculture, and political science. After 3 years of work, the Commission produced a set of global dietary and policy recommendations aimed to sustainably feed 10 billion people, cut global food waste in half, avert 11.1 adult deaths per year, and restore climate stability by 2050. They call this movement towards a healthier and more sustainable food future the “Great Food Transformation.” To make the transformation a reality, they highlight 5 key strategies to act now, presented in the graphic here. Key among these is a radical shift in what we eat and the way we consume, which they distill into a new dietary pattern called the Planetary Health Diet.
According to the Commission, the Planetary Health Diet is a flexible blueprint on how to consume a diet that is both healthy and sustainable. In practical terms, a Planetary Health plate consists of about half a plate of vegetables and fruits, and another half of whole grains, plant proteins (beans, lentils, pulses), unsaturated plant oils, and even modest amounts fish, meat, or dairy. The authors note that a small amount of added sugars and starchy vegetables are also okay in moderation. Altogether, the authors summarize that the diet is essentially the Mediterranean diet with slightly more sparing portions of animal products.
Though the Planetary Health Diet is largely plant-based, the Commission also notes that there are several populations worldwide that depend on agro-pastoral livelihoods and animal protein from livestock. They also add that for populations bearing significant burdens of undernutrition, consuming adequate quantities of micronutrients from plant source foods alone can be difficult. For these reasons, the Planetary Health Diet is intended to be flexible to account for the role of animal products in peoples’ diets, based on local and regional contexts.
The report asserts that people worldwide consume about 288% more red meat, 293% more starchy vegetables, and 153% more eggs than the recommended quantities to stay with in “planetary boundaries,” which they define as the biophysical limits that humanity should operate within to ensure a stable and resilient Earth system. In North America, these estimates jump to 638% for red meat, 171% for starchy vegetables, 268% for eggs, 234% for poultry, and 145% for dairy. The report goes on to provide estimates for Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to account for differences in food consumption patterns between populations and provide adjusted dietary recommendations. In all geographies, the Planetary Health Diet recommends more than double the global average daily consumption of healthy foods like fruits, non-starchy vegetables, legumes, and nuts.
To add to the complexity of setting global, scientific targets for the Planetary Health Diet, the Commission also aimed to establish these guidelines with respect and flexibility for personal preferences, dietary needs, cultural traditions, and other constraints like access and affordability. Rather than prescribing an exact diet fit for all, the Commission outlined a set of "empirical food groups and possible food intake ranges that the literature suggest will optimize both human and environmental health." These food groups and suggested intake ranges are intended to be adaptable to culture, geography, and demography of populations and individuals.
The task to create a global diet that maximizes human health and environmental sustainability has stirred both excitement and controversy in several circles. The Vegan Society commends the authors of the Planetary Health Diet for urging a diet that is largely plant-based, as their findings affirm the idea that animal products are generally non-essential. However, some in the vegan community have taken to the EAT Foundation’s Instagram account (@eatfoundation) to publicly lament that the Planetary Health Diet does not go far enough, and that it should condemn consumption of animal products altogether. Some farmers and livestock ranchers have also raised questions around how realistic it will be to divert land use from livestock to vegetable and grain cultivation, citing the need for adequate irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and the risk of vulnerability to weather events and poor yields.
In spite of the depth and breadth presented in the report, the EAT-Lancet report is most commonly critiqued as “overly simplistic and narrow” in its attempt to recommend a global diet of any kind. Others note the missed opportunity to draw a clear differentiation between factory-farmed products and products from locally-reared, grass-fed animals. In the agricultural community, some have pointed out that the report failed to describe the difference between arable and non-arable lands or quantify whether or not the proposed 50% increase in daily consumption of fruits, non-starchy vegetables, legumes, and nuts is achievable given the our current land constraints. Others have expressed similar concern as to whether or not the report’s aim to increase consumption of a plant-based diet is compatible with their separate aim to adopt a "Half Earth" strategy for biodiversity conservation (i.e. conserve at least 80% of preindustrial species richness by protecting the remaining 50% of Earth as intact ecosystems). Lastly, some have praised the empirical evidence presented in the report but regret that consumption of a Planetary Health Diet places undue responsibility on individuals to incite systemic change through diet rather than through policy. These critics insist upon the urgent need for policy change alongside individual dietary change in order to make real strides in the Great Food Transformation.
The Commission has held strong in the face of these critiques, asserting that:
one can be vegan on the Planetary Health Diet.
one can have small amounts of sustainably-sourced animal products.
the role of livestock in agro-ecology is known and respected.
we do indeed have enough arable land to eat a Planetary Health Diet, but we need to use our land better to produce the foods we need to survive and thrive.
The EAT-Lancet Report also highlights that a necessary prerequisite for the Great Food Transformation will be coordinated and systemic policy change. To support this agenda, they have already developed a brief for policy-makers.
Though much work remains to be done, there is also much to celebrate with the release of this report. First and foremost, this report demonstrates that the topic of food and food systems has risen to the forefront of the international dialogue on human health, environmental resilience, and climate stability. It also offers an evidence-based blueprint for how we can eat and advocate our way towards a healthier and more sustainable future. Though the hard work to act upon these recommendations lies ahead of both us and our policymakers, it seems that momentum for the Great Food Transformation only continues to grow.
Ayten Salahi is a second-year MS student studying Food and Nutrition Policy and Programs at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She is also an RD candidate studying dietetics at the Simmons School of Nursing and Health Sciences. She is a co-founder for the Friedman Food Policy Action Council (FFPAC) and a Research Assistant for the Tufts/USAID Office of Food for Peace working on the Food Aid Quality Review (FAQR) REFINE project. Prior to graduate school, Ayten spent a combined 8 years in research on cellular neurobiology and clinical management of diabetes through an Artificial Pancreas system. If you are interested in the Planetary Health movement and would like more details, she will be staying up-to-date on all the latest Planetary Health news and sharing updates at @planetaryhealthRD and the Planetary Health RD website. If you are a nutrition, wellness, culinary, policy, or environmental professional looking for a gathering space to discuss how we can heath ourselves and the planet through food, you are warmly invited to join our Planetary Health Community today.