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Feeding a growing population of 10 billion people by 2050 with a healthy and sustainable diet will be impossible without transforming eating habits, improving food production, and reducing food waste.
This is the stark reality laid out in a report by the EAT-Lancet Commission, recently published by British medical journal The Lancet, which provides the first scientific targets for a healthy food diet from a sustainable food production system that operates within planetary boundaries for food. Dr. Rami Zurayk, professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management in AUB's Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, is one of 37 experts from around the world that contributed to this groundbreaking report.
The EAT-Lancet Commission is a three-year project bringing together worldwide experts in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, food systems, economics, and political governance. The report warns that transformation of the global food system is urgently needed as more than 3 billion people are malnourished (both undernourished and overnourished), while current food production patterns are contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and misuse of water and land resources.
Planetary health diet
Compared with current diets, adoption of the new recommendations by 2050 will require global consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar to decrease by more than 50 percent, while consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes must double. In parts of the world, this diet involves increasing the access to certain food groups while in other areas, the diet requires a significant reduction in the overconsumption of unhealthier foods.
“One of the key messages of the EAT-Lancet report is: 'More fruits and greens for all, less meat for some'," explains Zurayk. “For those richer social classes in Lebanon and the region that are consuming too much meat, this should be a wakeup call as their diet has negative implications on their health and on that of the planet. But there are also a lot of poorer people in our region, especially women and children, whose nutrition and health can be improved by the consumption of modest quantities of meat."
The authors argue that unhealthy diets are the leading cause of ill-health worldwide and following the diet could avoid approximately 11 million premature deaths per year. “The world's diets must change dramatically. More than 800 million people have insufficient food, while many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and disease," says co-lead Commissioner Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard University.
The pace and scale of environmental change has grown exponentially since the mid-1950s, notes the report, and food production is the largest source of environmental degradation. To be sustainable, food production must occur within food-related planetary boundaries for climate change, biodiversity loss, land and water use, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. However, production must also be sustainably intensified to meet the global population's growing food demands.
Dr. Zurayk was part of the team that dealt with the issue of sustainable food systems, and he particularly focused on the implications of diets on water use in agriculture.
“Our region in general and Lebanon in particular are chronically short on water, and current freshwater use is largely unsustainable," says Zurayk. “We must seek to reduce the yield gaps and radically improve the efficiency of fertilizer and water use to remain within the safe ecological operating space specific to our region. There are serious policy implications to these statements, but there is sufficient evidence currently to justify immediate action."
The commission proposes five strategies to adjust what people eat and how it is produced. They include putting in place policies encouraging individuals to adopt healthier diets and increasing access to such diets. In addition, strategies to refocus agricultural efforts into producing crops rich in nutrients are needed, as well as sustainably intensifying agriculture. Equally, effective governance of land and ocean use will be important to preserve natural ecosystems and ensure continued food supplies. Finally, food waste must be at least halved, including waste occurring during the food production process and food waste by consumers.
“Our connection with nature holds the answer, and if we can eat in a way that works for our planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance of the planet's resources will be restored," says Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief at The Lancet. “The very nature that is disappearing holds the key to human and planetary survival."
To read the full report and for the dietary guidelines, click here.
The EAT-Lancet Commission report was featured in international newspapers, including The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, El Pais, Le Monde, National Geographic, and VG.