March 7, 2019

Responding to the EAT-Lancet Commission from the Integrated Landscape Perspective

Sara ScherrEcoAgriculture Partners

Major new report provides the most ambitious synthesis and analysis yet on a critical issue facing humanity in the 21st century. As such it requires considered response.

In January, The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical research journals, co-published a major report with the non-profit EAT Forum that “addresses the need to feed a growing global population a healthy diet while also defining sustainable food systems that will minimise damage to our planet.” The EAT-Lancet Commission report is already showing signs of significant influence. Thanks to a strategic outreach campaign and headline grabbing recommendations (“eat less meat!”) and also because it is the first major work to rigorously integrate analyses of nutrition, production, and environment, this is not surprising.

When the report first came out, many jumped into the debate immediately, based solely on the media reports of the commission’s findings and the provocative statements made during the public launch event. Rather than join that chorus, I decided to read the more than 50-page journal article closely, after the controversy had died down, and give the actual conclusions and the data used to support them the serious consideration they merit.

More diverse diets with less grains and tubers, less meat and dairy needed

The report was developed by a group of 37 scientists from 16 countries from the fields of human health, agriculture, political science, and environmental sustainability, and was based on extensive review of scientific evidence and scenario modeling. The Commission sought to “[integrate], with quantification of universal healthy diets, global scientific targets for sustainable food systems, and [aim] to provide scientific boundaries to reduce environmental degradation caused by food production at all scales.” A herculean effort for which they should be applauded, particularly the the masterful synthesis of data on the health impacts of diet and the daring to combine scientific analysis directly with policy recommendations. I also appreciate the effort in the journal article to distinguish which findings are most robust and which are not.

The public summary, meanwhile, lacks most of those caveats, and is thus more simplistic. It has therefore received the brunt of the backlash. If you look closely at the journal article, however, as I have done, many of the conclusions are unsurprising. The authors argue for a much more diverse diet, rich in legumes, fruits and vegetables, and fish, less dependent on simple grains, starchy vegetables, meat and dairy, saturated fats, processed meat and added sweeteners.

But two particular recommendations fly in the face of dominant policy goals from the past 60 or so years, and as such, predictably sparked outrage.

Are we eating too much animal product?

The first controversial recommendation is to dramatically limit global consumption of meat and dairy products, for both health and environmental reasons. The ‘reference diet’ only includes 111 calories per day intake for meat and eggs (with a range up to double that depending on overall dietary and cultural context), and 153 calories of whole milk and derivatives (i.e. cheese and yoghurt).  This would affect not only the livestock sector, but all of agriculture since so much of the world’s grain production is fed to food animals.

Context is helpful here: one quarter-pound hamburger patty contains 150-300 calories; a chicken egg is about 80 calories. In other words, you can still have a couple of meat or dairy-heavy meals a week. But the recommendations would, on average, involve a 50% reduction in consumption globally. For those in wealthy countries especially, that will require more than just a meatless Monday here and there. The report does consider that animal production in some contexts is essential for supporting livelihoods, grassland ecosystem services, poverty alleviation, and nutrition, but these caveats have been overlooked in the subsequent debate. They are worth exploring in more detail.

Are we growing too much grain?

Second, the recommendations limit grain consumption to only 811 calories per day, or about one-third of the total average consumption. While this would not be too disruptive in many wealthy countries (where more of the total calorie intake comes from meat and dairy), in low-income countries and among the poor in all countries, grains are the dominant feature of diets. We call them staple crops, after all.

While limitations on meat consumption grabbed headlines, this recommendation stands to have the largest impact on global resource allocations: Most agricultural research, development and market policies in the developing world have fixated on increasing grain production, particularly rice, wheat and corn (maize) as the solution to food insecurity. And in wealthy countries, cheap grain currently feeds the animals at the center of our diets. This makes a switch from grains to diverse fruits, vegetables and legumes a massive challenge, given that these crops have received so little  research and investment in the past 60 years.

Upcoming: digging into the report’s shortcomings

What does the EAT-Lancet Commission propose we do to make these shifts? The report’s main strategies to advance this ‘Great Food Transformation’ are far from groundbreaking: incentivize healthy diets with national policies, reorient agricultural priorities (i.e. subsidies) from quantity to quality, sustainably intensify food production, strengthen land and ocean governance, and halve food loss and waste. All sensible strategies.

But three major elements seriously weaken their analysis and recommendations. They overlook the massive potential of agroecological farming methods to provide more food with less impact. They apply an outdated top-down policy approach that underestimates the opportunities in and undermines the power of local self-determination. And they characterize farmers, fishers, and pastoralists as passive actors to be manipulated by policy rather than as dynamic sources of innovation and problem-solving.

Starting on Monday next week, I’ll share a post detailing each of these elements, and what I think the Commission and those who share its goals of healthy diets for all within planetary bounds should know if we’re going to achieve this goal together.

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