The Great Food Transformation

Launched today, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems sets out proposed global scientific targets to drive the transformation needed to secure human and planetary health.

The way we currently consume and produce our food in the Anthropocene – the current geological age where human activity is the dominant driver of changes on earth – is one of the greatest health and environmental challenges of the 21st century. More than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and disease. Moreover, global food production is the human activity that is placing the most pressure on earth, threatening local ecosystems and the stability of the Earth system.

The urgency of this challenge has brought together more than 30 world-leading scientists from various fields of human health and environmental sustainability to carry out the first full scientific review of what constitutes a healthy diet from a sustainable food system. Published today, Food in the Anthropocene: the Eat-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems* sets out six global scientific targets to achieve healthy diets and sustainable production by 2050.  

Global scientific targets for healthy diets and food production

There are currently no global scientific targets on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. This absence is “hindering large-scale and coordinated efforts to transform the food system” according to the Commission. This at a time when “the global burden on non-communicable diseases is predicted to worsen” and the “effects of food production on greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, biodiversity loss, and water and land use will reduce the stability of the Earth system”. 

The Commission argues that targets are required to speed up food system transformation and points to the global scientific targets already set for climate change that define ranges of maximum carbon dioxide emissions under the Paris Agreement. They explain similar scientific targets are vital to drive the great food transformation.

“An integrated agenda of human health and environmental sustainability alone will not be enough to achieve the SDGs and Paris Agreement. Clear scientific targets that define healthy diets and sustainable food production are necessary to guide policymakers, businesses and all food system actors.”

Six proposed science targets for food production

The targets set by the EAT-Lancet Commission are compatible with and complement the Sustainable Development Goals, and define a safe operating space for food that ensures human dietary health and environmental sustainability. This space refers to the upper and lower limits for adequate diets and food production.

The targets relate to six key Earth system processes:

  • climate change (greenhouse gas emissions)
  • nitrogen cycling (nitrogen application)
  • phosphorous cycling (phosphorous application)
  • freshwater use (consumptive water use)
  • biodiversity loss (extinction rate)
  • land-system change (cropland use).

The target on biodiversity, for example, looks at acceptable levels of species loss for the sustainability of our food systems. “This is not just about saving wildlife,” Fabrice DeClerck, Senior Scientist at Bioversity International and Science Director for EAT leading the commission, explains. “Biodiversity in agriculture is critical for stabilizing ecosystems, productivity and resilience, providing services like pollination, pest control, and carbon sinks. It also relates directly to the diversity of crops and livestock breeds themselves. Yet this functional value is often poorly misunderstood and hugely undervalued.”

The Commission underlines that “production needs to focus on a diverse range of nutritious food from biodiversity-enhancing food production systems rather than the increased volume of a few crops.” The evidence shows that biodiversity-based approaches intensify production while reducing pressures on the environment by, for example, improving soil quality. At the same time, a diversified diet is essential for human health.

A menu to nourish people

Healthy diets are ones that contribute to a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, going beyond just an absence of disease. They contain an appropriate calorific intake and consist of a diversity of plant foods, low amounts of animal source foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and small amounts of refined grains, highly processed foods and added sugars. 

The ‘Great Food Transformation’ will require substantial dietary shifts. These include a greater than 50% reduction in global consumption of unhealthy foods, such as sugar, and a greater than 100% increase in the consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits and vegetables. To this end, the Commission proposes a ‘healthy reference diet’, which fixes ranges of intakes per person for each food group and also for added fats, sugar, salt and other constituents.  

While much attention may be placed on the need to reduce meat and junk food consumption in western diets, the reality is that globally we are under-consuming healthy foods – the diversity of fruits, nuts, vegetables that underpin healthy diets. The Commission estimates that production of these foods will need to double to provide healthy diets by 2050. “According to our findings” says DeClerck, “improved use of agricultural diversity and increased consumption of plant diversity are key unlocks to producing foods better suited to local environments, and dietary needs”.

The big food picture

The Commission recognizes that because food systems are complex, and often context specific, there are no silver bullet solutions, nor a monopoly on solutions. Rather, in face of the urgency of the challenge, that a diversity of solutions are needed and are to be encouraged taking into account the multiple challenges faced. “It’s time for systems based solutions which is where diversity really becomes important” says DeClerck. “The value of biodiversity based solution is that they work with, rather than against the environment”. Transforming the food we eat and produce needs to be supported by a myriad of other interventions, including nutrition education, excellent healthcare and clean water.

Western media will focus on the low levels of meat, notably red meat, considered healthy by the Commission. However, the dietary recommendations made by the Commission flag the need to increase meat consumption in many parts of the world plagued by malnutrition and food insecurity. In sub-Saharan Africa, home to some of the most nutritionally insecure people on the planet, animal source protein levels are currently below levels recommended in the reference diet. There are also people with specific dietary needs at certain life stages, such as adolescent girls and pregnant women, who may need increased iron in their diet.

The focus on meat reduction, however, masks a rather universal need to increase the quantity and diversity of plants in diets. “That’s a much more proactive and positive message – and rather than focusing on the reduction of one species in our diet, let’s celebrate and increase the thousands of edible plants species we eat and grow – delicious, nutritious and sustainable” reminds DeClerck.

As Commission expert Shenggan Fan, Director General, IFPRI, a CGIAR Research Centre, comments: “For food systems to nurture human health and support environmental sustainability, global efforts are urgently needed to collectively transform diets and food production. CGIAR researchers and partners will play a critical role in contributing rigorous evidence and knowledge base for the widespread, multisectoral action that is required for a food system transformation”.

Read the paper

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*The EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems convenes leading global researchers from diverse scientific disciplines. Their mission is to advance the development of scientific targets for healthy diets from environmentally sustainable food production. The Stockholm Resilience Centre houses the EAT-Lancet Commission secretariat and co-leads the Commission’s research activities with EAT.

The expert group includes Fabrice DeClerck, Research Director EAT and Senior Scientist, Agricultural Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Bioversity International; Shenggan Fan, Director General, of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); Sonja Vermeulen, Head of Research, CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS); Jessica Fanzo, Member of Bioversity International Inc., US Board of Trustees. These CGIAR centres and programmes are supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust Fund.