Sustainable diets? Mixed responses to landmark EAT Lancet dietary overhaul recommendations

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21 Jan 2019 --- Industry experts and academics have aired mixed responses to last week’s landmark EAT Lancet study, which calls for an overhaul of global everyday diets to safeguard global health and avoid damage to the planet. The significant recommendations include amendments to food production and reductions in food waste. Although many have welcomed the study’s goals and scientific approach, questions have been posed as to the viability of the far stretching policy changes it proposes, as well as the utility of one set of dietary recommendations deemed to be suitable for everyone.

Moving to this new dietary pattern will require a drastic reduction of about 50 percent in the global consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar, while the consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables and legumes must double. 

“Finally,”  a science-based approach
It has been understood for some time that dietary changes must be made to accommodate the growing population and sustain resources. Amendments to modern-day diets have also been encouraged from a health perspective as metabolic disease rates continue to skyrocket.

However, approaching such a mammoth topic has largely lacked science-substantiated targets – until now.

“The links among diet, health and the environment are well-documented, but, until now, the challenge of attaining healthy diets from a sustainable food system has been hampered by a lack of science-based guidelines,” says Dr. Howard Frumkin, Head of Wellcome’s Our Plant Our Health program.

“While this report does not have all the answers, it provides governments, producers and individuals with an evidence-based starting point to work together to transform our food systems and cultures,” he adds.

“The analysis demonstrates that shifts in our diets can have enormous beneficial effects on health and also substantially reduce our impacts on the environment. This significant ‘win-win’ for health and the environment is not a new finding, but this analysis, which for the first time defines environmental boundaries for the food system, is the most advanced ever conducted,” says Alan Dangour, Professor in Food and Nutrition for Global Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).Click to EnlargeThe EAT Lancet commission are calling for an overhaul of the modern diet as well as improvements to food production practices.

In this way, the commission is applauded for supplying a thorough “menu of actions,” which has not been done before. However, this does not simplify the task at hand and large changes will be required at the policy level to implement the recommendations.

Universal dietary recommendations: Overly simplistic?
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) puts forward that while the study rightly links food systems to decreasing global health and environmental issues, one set of dietary recommendations, as recommended in the report, may not by suitable for everyone.

“The BDA supports the findings of EAT Lancet, namely that our food systems have a significant impact on the environment and that our current dietary patterns are having a negative effect on our health as well,” Tom Embury, Public Affairs Officer at British Dietetic Association, tells NutritionInsight. “However, we would stop short of endorsing the specific diet they recommend because we do not believe that one set of dietary recommendations is suitable for everyone. The skill of dietitians is in translating the evidence around sustainable diets into practical, personalized advice for individuals.”

The commission calls for a substantial reduction in dietary red meat, which unsurprisingly led to a response from the meat industry. Researchers point to the benefits of  a diet that consists of approximately 35 percent of calories as whole grains and tubers, protein sources mainly from plants – but includes approximately 14g of red meat per day – and 500g per day of vegetables and fruits. This amounts to a drastic reduction of about 50 percent in the global consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar.

According to Will Jackson, Strategy Director for Beef & Lamb at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), the report is well-intentioned but potentially flawed in its approach to red meat.

“Red meat contains an efficient package of essential nutrients important for the body. For this reason, government guidelines suggest we should have 70g of red meat a day. Average population intake in the UK is currently below this figure. Any suggestion that we should further reduce our intake could have unintended detrimental consequences on health,” Jackson says. 

“Farming, in particular dairy and red meat, is part of the solution, making the best use of naturally occurring assets to feed a growing population. They are an important nutritional part of a healthy, balanced diet,” he adds.

Along these lines, the UK farming industry calls for the report to be looked at through the “local-lens.”

“There are significant differences in farming methods and consumption patterns across the globe and it is important that we recognize that the British livestock industry is one of the most efficient and sustainable in the world,” says Stuart Roberts, Vice President of the National Farmers Union (NFU).

“For example, 65 percent of UK farmland is highly suitable for grass production over other crops, so the UK is well placed to produce food from sustainable livestock grazing systems. Also, grassland is a very good store of carbon, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

“It is clear that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and British farmers are continuing to take action. A combination of policies and practices will be needed to enable farmers to meet their ambitions, but we must not forget the impact of a changing climate on food production – we only have to look back to the drought last year to see the effect it can have,” he explains.

Despite the representatives of the UK farming community highlighting the potential risks of lowering red meat consumption, there are a host of studies that have identified how red meat and other meat sources are harmful to health, and of course, the environment.

An in-depth analysis involving the University of Oxford and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany noted that meat consumption should be dramatically reduced in favor of plant-based diets to avoid climate chaos

“Without concerted action, we found that the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 50-90 percent by 2050 as a result of population growth and the rise of diets high in fats, sugars, and meat. In that case, all planetary boundaries related to food production would be surpassed, some of them by more than two-fold,” says Dr. Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, who led the study.

Although the report sets out to tackle some pertinent global issues, some critics note that targeting agriculture may wrongly distract from a higher environmental priority – the burning of fossil fuels. 

Additionally, critics note that the report fails to make any persuasive case as to how its ambitious goals should be achieved, failing to mention the role of GM crops and importance of fertilizers and herbicides, among other issues.

By Laxmi Haigh, with additional reporting by Lucy Gunn

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