New Diet Guidelines to Benefit People and the Planet: More Greens for All, Less Meat for Some
What should we eat?
Depends on who is eating.
That’s one of the principal conclusions of a comprehensive report that sets out targets on how to feed the world in a way that’s good for human health and the health of the planet. Its lightning-rod recommendation is around beef and lamb, the two forms of livestock that require enormous amounts of land and water and produce heaps of methane.
The report suggests a dramatic reduction in red meat consumption for people who eat a lot of it, like Americans and Canadians, but not the world’s poor, who need more animal protein for better health — like children in South Asia.
Written by 37 scientists from 16 countries and published Wednesday in the medical journal The Lancet, in conjunction with an advocacy group called the EAT Forum, the report was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Stordalen Foundation. In addition to the recommendations on meat, it calls for curbing food waste, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and overhauling agriculture so it doesn’t worsen deforestation and the depletion of scarce water.
“It’s not a blanket approach, but when you look at the data there are certain individuals or populations that don’t need that much red meat for their own health,” said Jessica Fanzo, a professor of food policy at Johns Hopkins University and a co-author of the report. “There’s a real inequity. Some people get too much. Some people get too little.”
People in North America eat more than 6 times the recommended amount of red meat, the report said, while countries in South Asia eat half of what’s recommended.
Agriculture accounts for roughly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, much of them produced by the raising of cattle and lamb. With the world’s population projected to rise to 10 billion by 2050 and prosperity allowing many more people to afford meat and dairy, scientists and policymakers are paying more attention to the question of feeding the planet without destroying it.
One recent study by the World Resources Institute recommended that people in Europe and the United States reduce their meat consumption. But like the Lancet report, it, too, suggested that reducing the carbon footprint of food would also require rapid changes in farming methods to allow farmers and ranchers to grow far more food on existing agricultural lands while cutting emissions.
The Lancet report pointed to a broader problem of disparity: More than 800 million people don’t get enough to eat worldwide, the report noted, and many more “consume low-quality diets that cause micronutrient deficiencies and contribute to a substantial rise in the incidence of diet-related obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases.”
The report took pains to say that it wasn’t trying to prescribe to people what to eat or how to eat. It laid out global targets for what constitutes a healthy diet, based on an average intake of 2,500 calories a day. That includes 14 grams, or about half an ounce, of beef or lamb a day. That’s roughly the equivalent of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder every eight days.
The report said the largest share of daily calories, 35 percent, should come from whole grains, including rice, wheat and corn, and starchy tubers like potatoes and cassava. The recommendations included unsaturated fats, milk, cheese and nuts, and lots of green vegetables. Overall, the guidelines called for a doubling of global consumption of fruits, nuts, vegetables and legumes, and cutting the consumption of red meat in half.
The meat reduction recommendation received immediate pushback. Even before the release of the Lancet report, the Animal Agriculture Alliance, an industry group, issued a statement extolling the benefits of meat and dairy. It said cutting animal protein could “risk worsening malnutrition, increasing food waste, and distracting from the highest priorities for addressing greenhouse gas emissions.” The group echoed the Lancet report’s recommendation to reduce food waste.
Likewise, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in a statement, called beef “nourishing and sustainable.”
The Lancet report also made clear that individual consumer choices would not be enough to avert what the authors called “catastrophic damage to the planet.” It urged governments to encourage healthy food choices and ensure access to nutritious food. It also suggested that global agriculture policy emphasize not just producing more food, but more “nutritious plant-based foods,” though it acknowledged that, in some places, animal farming can be good for the ecosystem.
It recommended policies to curb deforestation and to protect at least 10 percent of marine areas from fishing. To tackle food waste, it suggested help for farmers in poor- and middle-income countries to better store their crops and get them to market while still fresh. In rich countries, it encouraged better shopping habits and improved “use by” labels.
“The evidence says we can do it,” said Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at the City University of London and a co-author of the report. “There’s an immense diversity of what people can eat. It’s not prescriptive.”
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