Human health, diet, and environmental sustainability are prevailing concerns that share many common uncertainties. Fulfilling the nutritional needs of a growing population while limiting environmental degradation is a critical challenge that requires global collaboration and commitment. Current food systems, in addition to supporting unhealthy diets and practices, greatly impact the environment, leading to climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater misuse, interference with the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and land-system change. Current global food systems are simply unable to provide the population of ~7.7 billion with healthy diets while also achieving environmental sustainability.
The EAT-Lancet Commission brings together scientists and experts from the diverse fields of human health, agriculture, political sciences, and environmental sustainability in an effort to establish global targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production. Using the best scientific evidence available, the Commission seeks a global transformation of food systemsthat will help to achieve the goals set forth in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. The SDGs are global goals reduce hunger and improve nutrition. The Paris Agreement sets a budget on greenhouse gas emissions to keep the global mean temperature increase to less than 2°C.
The EAT-Lancet Commission has quantitatively characterized a universal healthy reference diet that will positively impact both human health and the environment. This healthy reference diet consists predominantly of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and unsaturated oils; includes a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry; and includes no or little red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables. The commission has also rendered scientific boundaries that will aid in the reduction of environmental degradation caused by food production at all scales.
At OFAS, we have spent over 25 years studying how a low-methionine diet improves lifespan and healthspan. This diet consists primarily of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes and contains limited quantities of meats, seafood, and poultry—much like the the EAT-Lancet Commission’s healthy reference diet. Thus, a low methionine diet not only provides benefit to an individual’s health but also promotes a sustainable environment.
The EAT-Lancet Commission proposes five strategies to achieve the “Great Food Transformation”.
1. Seek international and national commitment to shift towards healthy diets
2. Reorient agricultural priorities from producing large quantities of food to producing healthy food
3. Sustainably intensify food production, generating high-quality output
4. Strong and coordinated governance of land and oceans
5. At least halve food loss and waste, in line with global SDGs
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Willett, W., Rockström, J., Loken, B., Springmann, M., et.al. 2019. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. EAT-Lancet EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4
Ables, G.P., and Johnson, J.E. (2017). Pleiotropic responses to methionine restriction. Exp Gerontol 94, 83-88.
Researchers at Oxford University and the Swiss agricultural research institute, Agroscope, have created the most comprehensive database on the environmental impacts of nearly 40,000 farms and 1,600 processors, packaging types, and retailers. This allows them to assess how different production practices and geographies lead to different environmental impacts for 40 major foods. According to this new study, there are environmental costs in what humanity chooses to eat and drink and shows how these choices make a difference.
Environmental scientist Joseph Poore of the University of Oxford says that the agricultural data shows wide differences in environmental impacts — from greenhouse gas emissions to water used — even between producers of the same product. The amount of climate-warming gases released in the making of a pint of beer, for example, can more than double under high-impact production scenarios. For dairy and beef cattle combined, high-impact providers released about 12 times as many greenhouse gases as low-impact producers. Those disparities mean that there is room for high-impact producers to tread more lightly, Poore says. If consumers could track such differences, he argues, purchasing power could push for change.
Poore and colleague Thomas Nemecek report in their study that protein from beef releases an increased amount of greenhouse gas emissions in comparison to protein from cheese, poultry, and tofu. “Food production creates immense environmental burdens, but these are not a necessary consequence of our needs. They can be significantly reduced by changing how we produce and what we consume” says Poore. Replacing meat and dairy foods from producers with above-average environmental effects with plant-based products could make a notable difference in greenhouse gas emissions.
For producers, the researchers present evidence in favor of using new technology. This technology often works on mobile devices, taking information on inputs, outputs, climate, and soil, to quantify environmental impacts. The technology then provides recommendations on how to reduce these impacts and increase productivity. However, producers have limits on how far they can reduce their impacts. Specifically, the researchers found that the variability in the food system fails to translate into animal products with lower impacts than vegetable equivalents. Diet change, therefore, delivers greater environmental benefits than purchasing sustainable meat or dairy. Further, without major changes in technology that disproportionately target animal products, the researchers show that animal product-free diets are likely to deliver greater environmental benefits than changing production practices both today and in the future.
Producing food overall accounts for 26 percent of global climate-warming emissions, and takes up about 43 percent of the land that’s not desert or covered in ice, the researchers found. Out of the total carbon footprint from food, 57 percent comes from field agriculture, livestock and farmed fish. Clearing land for agriculture accounts for 24 percent and transporting food accounts for another 6 percent. “We need to find ways to slightly change the conditions so it’s better for producers and consumers to act in favor of the environment,” says Poore. “Environmental labels and financial incentives would support more sustainable consumption, while creating a positive loop: Farmers would need to monitor their impacts, encouraging better decision making; and communicate their impacts to suppliers, encouraging better sourcing.”