food sustainability

The planetary health diet for 10 billion people

A couple of weeks ago there was a spate of articles on food and flexitarianism, in response to a new study from The Lancet and EAT. (Here’s the BBC report) The study pulls together the planetary boundaries and human nutrition, and describes what a healthy and sustainable diet might look like for 10 billion people.

Rather than prescribe vegetarianism, the study allows for a little meat and dairy,  and suggests that half the food we eat (by volume) should be fruit and vegetables.

Globally, that would involve a doubling of fruit and vegetable consumption. At the same time, meat eating would more than halve, with sugar consumption shrinking by a similar amount. Not all meat is created equal, and the report leaves more room for chicken and fish than it does for red meat. Eggs are a good source of protein and included as an optional food. Most food cultures could make more room for nuts, seeds and legumes.

How close are we right now to this ideal diet? Here’s a colourful graphic showing where we exceed or fall short of the optimum line for health.

Interestingly, the two foods in most dramatic overshoot do so for different reasons. Meat is over-consumed in rich countries, and eating less would improve health and environmental outcomes. Starchy vegetables, such as plantain, cassava or potatoes, are over-consumed in poorer countries. They are filling but low in nutrients, and eating a broader range of vegetables would be better. Cassava is often considered ‘poor people’s food’ though, so it’s not always a matter of choice.

The global picture hides very contrasting diets then, and it’s worth downloading the report summary and seeing the regional graphs. Some places can expand their consumption of meat, dairy and eggs, while others need to eat much less.

What do you think? If you have hesitated at the idea of giving up certain foods altogether, can you imagine eating like a one-planet flexitarian?

17 comments

  1. I’m rather surprised about how little ‘diet space’ is allocated to starchy vegetables. Potatoes are a great food, have a low impact, and can be easily grown in bulk at home.

    1. I noticed that, and I was looking for more information about why that was. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the full report to download properly from the Lancet website, and the summary doesn’t explain. Something to look into if anyone else can get it to work!

    2. Its the current sugar scare:
      “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 hypertension and
      weight gain.”

  2. Nutritionally this diet is dubious and reflects its authors’ hobby horses rather than an academic consensus (for example it still has concerns over fresh red meat on heart function that have been pretty much debunked).
    This diet is smaller than the worst UK rations in the Second World War and after. It’s not going to fly with the public. The 1950 election was fought primarily over when to end rationing. Labour argued for indefinite rationing and while it won lost 90 seats and was out of office within 18 months.

    The authors know this which is why they want $1 billion for sock puppet lobbyists to lobby governments to adopt the taxes and bans and outright rationing they advocate. Rather than go through democratic means they want to get international treaties so that UN treaties and the EU are imposing this. It’s an elitist project and will cause a reaction. Brexit is a response to an unresponsive elitist European project. Do you think the result of this would be any better?

    They may be support from this on the basis that it is supposedly healthy but if this was really going to be imposed I think you would find many of the supporters would be of the view ‘Lord make me chaste, but not yet’.

    My final point would be those who think it will leave lots of artisanal products should look at the WW2 experience. In order to feed people on a restricted diet quality is lost over quantity. The British cheese industry was entirely one type of Government Cheddar. The effects of this lasted till the 1990s

    1. Good thing it’s in the Lancet and peer reviewed. No doubt the nutritionists of the world will correct any debunked nutritional advice. Let me know when they do that.

      Can you link to where you’re getting your take on this paper? Because there’s no mention of rationing in the summary, and it gets one mention in 478 pages of the full paper, and it’s not a recommendation.

      1. Page 478 under ‘Restrict Choice’: “Model choice editing or rationing on a population scale”

        It is a recommendation as its part of the “full range of policy levers is likely to be needed”. “countries and authorities should not restrict themselves to narrow measures or soft interventions. Too often policy remains at the soft end of the policy ladder.” How are they not recommending it?

        Sadly peer review isn’t what it was. https://newrepublic.com/article/135921/science-suffering-peer-reviews-big-problems

        As to the nutrition. Would a Ph.D in Public Health Nutrition be good enough: http://www.zoeharcombe.com/2019/01/the-eat-lancet-diet-is-nutritionally-deficient/

        1. Hopefully Dr Zoe will use the peer review process to voice her concerns then, and we’ll see what the authors say about it.

          So you’ve read the same reference to rationing that I have – one mention, in a context of a table of policy options which includes a broad range of industry and government and civil society options (and where rationing is one of several example of ‘choice restriction’) and you’ve jumped to the conclusion that this is an undemocratic elitist bid to centralise control of the world’s food? That’s just bizarre.

          1. I don’t think you understand how peer review works. Peer review is done BEFORE publication when then journal sends to article out to other experts in the field to review. The choice of reviewers is for the journal so you can get a groupthink if they don’t spread it widely. There is a bit of a crisis going on with at teh moment, this especially in areas that touch on public policy.

            They are clear that consumer pressure (so the democratic side) isn’t going to be enough so taxes and bans will be needed to achieve their goals. You don’t need to give $1 billion of campaigning money to a popular campaign. This is not liberal or democratic.

            It is sadly easy to give a free pass to people espousing non-democratic ideas when you agree with what they are looking to achieve. The EU Single Market locks in lots of things I like that I know aren’t very popular (e.g. state aid rules) but I am prepared to criticise its elitist and technocratic nature even though reform of that would likely mean I have to win the argument for them rather than just rely on ‘Brussels won’t let us’

  3. That’s the formal peer review process, sure. After that it is conducted through correspondence, which the Lancet welcomes and publishes.

    You have a remarkable ability to see the worst in things.

    1. The Lancet? Which published Andrew Wakefield’s MMR causes autism paper and wouldn’t retract it for 12 years. That Lancet?

      What you discribe isn’t peer review. It’s academic correspondence. And I do expect plenty of that in the Lancet and other publications.

  4. The Lancet that withdrew the paper after it was discovered that Wakefield had falsified the results – and not before, despite pressure to do so? Not sure that discredits them to be honest, but that’s in the eye of the beholder.

    As with MMR, the peers of this particular study will produce correspondence, the authors will respond to correspondence, and there will be counter-studies and alternatives. The science will progress and we’ll get closer to what a sustainable nutritional diet looks like for 9 billion people.

    Or we can pick out one word in a 478 document and leap to the conclusion that someone’s out to undermine democracy. I don’t see that gets us any closer to avoiding future food crises, but you do what you like.

    1. Defending the Lancet over MMR isn’t the hill I’d choose to die on but each to there own.

      Please carry on trying to redefine Peer review to gloss over the fact you got that wrong. It’s a better look to admit small errors

      1. You brought up MMR as a way to discredit the Lancet. Seems a pointless distraction to me.

        “Peer review can be broadly defined as a method of evaluating and improving the content of scholarly work by subjecting it to the critical assessment of other workers in the same field… Peer review has never ended with publication. The letters to the editor published in journals carry a great deal of peer review…” Craig Bingham in the Lancet.

        Now, can we either discuss what a sustainable diet looks like, or move on?

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