A new report published Wednesday urges a “radical transformation of the global food system," recommending humans cut their red meat and sugar consumption in half and eat a diet much heavier in plant-based foods.
The report from the EAT-Lancet Commission is being trumpeted as a pathway to a healthy diet and a sustainable food production system that could help meet international climate goals.
Jessica Fanzo, a professor of global food and agriculture policy and ethics at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, argues the dietary shift is part of a necessary reframing of production agriculture.
“We need to reorient agriculture priorities from producing high quantities of food to producing healthy food,” Fanzo said. “We really need to shift toward producing healthy foods not only for humans, but for the planet as well.”
“The agriculture sector, while it has been successful in feeding the world, has not been successful in feeding the world well,” she added.
The so-called “Lancet report” stresses a dietary approach that it says will feed a growing world population without overburdening the planet’s resources. As such, it suggests proteins typically derived from animal agriculture should come from other sources instead. To simplify things, the report suggests the average diet needs to double fruit, vegetable, nut, and legume consumption and cut red meat consumption in half.
There are limited caveats, however, to the suggestions. The report says “some populations depend on agropastoral livelihoods and animal protein from livestock” and others “continue to face significant burdens of undernutrition” that can’t be satisfied through “micronutrients from plant source foods alone.”
“Given these considerations, the role of animal source foods in people’s diets must be carefully considered in each context and within local and regional realities,” the report notes.
Unsurprisingly, American animal ag groups disagree with the findings.
KatieRose McCullough, director of scientific and regulatory affairs for the North American Meat Institute, said the report “ignores key facts about food and climate.”
“Americans consume the recommended amount of meat and poultry, which provide nutrition that cannot simply be replaced by another food,” she said in a statement. “In fact, the report's ‘fad diet’ approach that recommends people radically reduce or even eliminate meat from their diets could have substantial damaging public health consequences.”
The National Pork Producers Council labeled the report dubious and irresponsible, citing the nutritional value of pork and other meats. Improvements could be made, however, in foreign policies the group says also raise sustainability and undernourishment concerns.
“Maybe the report’s authors should call on the European Union to drop its Draconian ‘precautionary principle’ that all but prevents the use of new technologies and modern production practices,” Jim Heimerl, NPPC’s president said in a statement. “It’s those kinds of restrictions that are forcing farmers around the world to forgo using scientifically proved technologies that produce more food and in a more environmentally friendly way.”
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association offered a statement on behalf of the beef checkoff disputing the report’s claims of overconsumption of beef and said the protein can still be enjoyed within responsible dietary constraints.
“History and well-established research have consistently shown that science-based advancements and practical, balanced dietary patterns promote health and sustainability, not eliminating single foods, like beef,” the group said. “Most people are already eating beef within global dietary guidelines, so we assert the biggest opportunity for a healthy sustainable diet will come from reducing food waste, eating fewer empty calories and enjoying more balanced meals.”
The report comes as the Trump administration readies an update to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the food advice offered to the U.S. every five years. Sustainability concerns were discussed during the drafting of the 2015 version, but were ultimately pulled from the final document released by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.
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