To make sure the planet can feed an expected 10 billion population by 2050, consumption of red meat, sugar and refined grains will need to drop by more than half, and that of plant-based foods will need to more than double. That's the assessment of "Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems," published Jan. 16 in The Lancet.
The three-year project, involving 37 experts from 16 countries, concluded food systems could nurture human health and environmental sustainability but are currently threatening both. "Unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than does unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined. Because much of the world's population is inadequately nourished and many environmental systems and processes are pushed beyond safe boundaries by food production, a global transformation of the food system is urgently needed," the authors wrote.
Meat and dairy representatives were critical of the report. In a release, KatieRose McCullough, the North American Meat Institute's director of scientific and regulatory affairs, said the recommendations "differ dramatically from consensus nutrition science and U.S. dietary guidance," and meat and poultry provide nutrition that can't simply be replaced by another food. Dairy Industry Ireland responded that dairy is a "basic building block" of a nourishing diet, and the industry has one of the lowest carbon footprints per liter of milk produced in the European Union.
This report isn't surprising since others have come to similar conclusions that humans need to eat more plants and less meat to save the planet and be healthier. The World Economic Forum recently recommended more plant-based proteins be incorporated into global diets to enhance human health and environmental sustainability. However, unlike the EAT-Lancet study, it suggested the two protein sources could complement each other as the agricultural system develops more plant-based alternatives.
What may cast the EAT-Lancet report in a more authoritative light is that a significant group of experts from many countries brought comprehensive societal and environmental considerations into their analysis, as well as dietary ones. They also made specific recommendations about consumption patterns in certain world regions.
Consumers in North America, for example, eat 6.5 times more red meat on average than is recommended, yet consumers in Southeast Asia eat about half the recommended amount, Food Navigator noted. The report also recommended a daily limit of 250 grams of dairy products — whole milk and/or cheese — while most Western countries suggest at least three servings per day because of the calcium content.
The report touched on policy changes, including enhancing availability and affordability of sustainable foods, and limiting advertising of those that are not. Many segments of the food industry are likely to take a dim view of that since such a practice would obviously put a serious crimp in brand marketing and outreach efforts.
Industry reactions to the EAT-Lancet report were predictably skeptical, with representatives of dairy, meat and pork interests finding it short-sighted and superficial. The National Pork Producers Council said in a statement the report was "based on dubious science and is irresponsible," and meat has critical vitamins and minerals often lacking in the diets of developing countries. The group also said the U.S. animal agriculture sector is "among the most environmentally friendly in the world."
While other analyses take issue with the latter claim, it's an understandable response since the report is recommending people worldwide drastically scale back their consumption of meat. The drumbeat along those lines seems to be growing louder. A study published last May in the journal Science concluded animal agriculture is responsible for many global environmental problems, and avoiding consumption of animal products would help the environment more than buying sustainable meat and dairy products.
"A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use," Joseph Poore, the Oxford University professor who led that research, told The Guardian.
Major players in the U.S. food industry have been paying attention to this research, and some meat producers are pivoting toward more plant-based food and beverage manufacturing to respond to consumers' increasing concern about the environment. Tyson Foods paved the way in 2016 by investing in plant-based protein foods maker Beyond Meat, and last year took a minority stake in cell-cultured meat company Memphis Meats.
On the policy stage, nutrition educators in the U.S. are pushing to include environmental sustainability issues in the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans because they say current diets and agricultural practices contribute to environmental trends. Taken together, these developments show the trend toward aligning diets with agricultural policies and practices is growing and will continue to impact the food industry in the years ahead.