A globally challenging report written by the EAT-Lancet Commission that defines targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production has received a mixed response regarding its recommendations for the reduction of red meat consumption and the environmental assumptions contained within the report.
The EAT Lancet Commission is a group of 37 world-leading scientists from 16 countries from various scientific disciplines. The goal of the Commission was to reach a scientific consensus by defining targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production. The findings of the Commission provide the first ever scientific targets for a healthy diet and sustainable food production within planetary boundaries that will allow us to feed up to 10 billion people by 2050.
The timing of the report’s publication coincided with the ‘Veganuary’ social movement that promotes veganism. This and the recommended levels of red meat consumption has led some UK media platforms to label the report ‘anti-meat’.
In an article written for new research website, The Conversation, Andrew Salter, Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry, Future Food Beacon, University of Nottingham, said: “The diet the commission came up with is likely to split opinion, as it would fundamentally impact on many people’s daily lives. When comparing it to what is typically consumed in the UK, for instance, there are some dramatic changes recommended.”
Recommended reductions in meat consumption
The EAT-Lancet Commission described its recommended ‘planetary health’ diet as being symbolically represented by ‘half a plate of fruits, vegetables and nuts’. The other half consists primarily of ‘whole grains, plant proteins (beans, lentils, pulses), unsaturated plant oils, modest amounts of meat and dairy, and some added sugars and starchy vegetables.’
Professor Salter said: “The one which has hit most of the headlines is a reduction in the consumption of red meat (beef, pork and lamb) from approximately 12% of total energy intake to a mere 1%. Poultry does a little better, but still falls by more than half, along with major reductions in the intake of fish, eggs and dairy produce. The potential impact of the diet in North America (the largest consumers of meat and dairy products) is even greater.
“With Veganuary fresh in the mind, such changes may not appear too radical. However, while social media may have us believe that vegetarianism, or even veganism, are becoming the norm, still only about 12% of the UK population follow a meat-free diet.”
Potentially flawed thinking on sustainability
Will Jackson, AHDB’s Strategy Director for Beef & Lamb, argued that full-scale studies have not yet assessed the environmental impact of a global diet based solely or largely on plant-based protein. He questioned the report’s sustainable and nutritional aspects.
He said: “This report appears to be another example of well-intentioned but potentially flawed thinking on how we reduce our impact on the environment.
“Meeting the nutritional needs of a growing UK population from plant-based proteins would likely rely much more heavily on imported food, which may be produced to lower environmental standards.
“Red meat produced in the UK is a sustainable source of good quality protein. Many of the meat alternative products we are seeing on supermarket shelves are ultra-processed, often from cheaply available materials.”
Dietary targets for palm oil and feeding food waste to pigs
Joanna Lewis, Policy Director at The Soil Association welcomed the report. She said: “Contrary to some reports, the report is not ‘anti-meat’. The Commission states clearly that ‘livestock on leftovers’ – animals extensively reared on grass or food waste that is inedible to humans – has an important role to play in delivering a planetary health diet. As part of the goal of halving food waste, we urgently need to resume feeding food waste to pigs.”
However, the Soil Association is concerned that the commission has included a dietary target for palm oil, although it cites a study raising health concerns about industrially processed palm oil and makes no reference to the impact palm oil plantations have on forests and biodiversity.
Joanna Lewis said: “Singling out butter for a zero target (when it can be a product of a diverse, sustainable farming system) while exonerating palm oil would appear misguided and incompatible with the call for zero CO2 emissions from land-use change.”
Local food production systems ignored
John Davies, NFU Cymru President, said that the report failed to take account of different systems of food production that are optimised for the local environment and climate.
He added: “In Wales, around 80% of our land is made up of marginal areas where crops cannot grow, but we do have optimal conditions for grass growth which can, in turn, be converted into high quality protein in the form of PGI Welsh Lamb and Beef, as well as a range of dairy products.”
He questioned the wisdom of following a ‘planetary diet’ comprising nuts and legumes to fulfil the UK’s protein requirements when they cannot be grown here in the quantities required.
He said: “It is wholly unsustainable for us, as a nation, to export the impact of our food requirements to other parts of the world where environmental standards are lower than ours. There are also transport-related emissions with this approach.”
Tackling nutritional issues on a global scale
Sue Pritchard, Director of the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, welcomed the Eat-Lancet Commission’s attempt to tackle issues of malnutrition in some parts of the world and health-related illnesses caused by over-consumption in others.
Agreeing with Joanna Lewis from the Soil Assocation, Sue Pritchard also argued for a resumption of feeding food waste to pigs to help develop virtuous circular systems; an overall reduction in intensively produced meat; and for food prices to accurately reflect the true cost of production, processing and consumption.
She called for more Government intervention to restrict the activities of transnational corporations who profit from producing unhealthy food or depleting ecosystems and for a review of the powers of multinational companies to control species and limit genetic pools.
Sue Pritchard said: “The report highlights how, in many parts of the world, small family farms need better support – such as investment and infrastructure for shorter supply chains - to develop and grow a much wider variety of foods, more suited to their climates and conditions, which, in turn, also has beneficial health and ecosystem effects.
“This report is very much more than a bid to reduce meat and promote plant-based diets. It’s a serious analysis of the way that complex trans-national food and farming systems operate now - and a rallying call to urgent action, to grow a global consensus for more sustainable systems for people and planet.”
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