If the planet is to survive forget the healthy eating guide as we know it, EAT-Lancet says.

To eat meat or not to eat meat – the future of the planet is the question

EAT-Lancet’s edict that we should eat only half a bacon rasher a day and one egg a week has upset pretty much everyone. Where does it leave New Zealand’s farming-based economy?

The release of the EAT-Lancet Commission’s report last week kicked off a global debate on food, health, and what we should be eating to save the planet. This was the report that showed a plate of food with a lot less meat than Kiwis are used to seeing in barbecue season. But it also fueled criticism from vegan and plant-based groups for including meat and dairy in its recommendations. Health experts picked apart the portion sizes suggested, and sustainable agriculture experts disagreed with mixing organic and conventional farming together and not taking into account different land uses in different countries.

In short, the report is the first of its kind bringing sectors together and addressing some of the biggest issues facing the planet. Yes, it upset a lot of people and didn’t please anyone entirely, but it got food, health and sustainability in news headlines around the world and sparked a conversation that hasn’t happened before.

Led by Johan Rockström of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Stockholm Resilience Centre, the EAT-Lancet team ran models of the planetary boundaries of food production for 10 million people in 2050, looking at what we could produce with the agricultural land we have and without any further destruction of ecosystems. Could we feed everyone and at the same time reduce our impact on the climate to bring us back into a safe zone, it asked? And if we achieved that, would we be eating healthily?

This is where the plate of mainly vegetables (with a lot less meat than most meat eaters want and a lot more than non-meat eaters would tolerate) comes into it. Theoretically, yes, if every single person in a future population of 10 billion ate in this way we could still live on planet Earth and produce enough to feed everyone. Given most of the climate change doomsday scenarios facing us and a lack of suggestions on what to do about it, I think that is quite cheerful news. We could actually feed the world.

The reality, though, is that plate of perfect proportions will not be equally distributed across the globe. It never has been and it never will. The types of food that can be produced in one area will not be produced in another, hence the reason for exchanging food in the first place. On top of that, climate change is predicted to impact land practices in many areas, making it difficult to farm or grow crops as was once possible.

Let’s stop and put this in perspective. The world right now is dominated by large scale industrial agribusiness and food businesses that are privately owned and creating extreme wealth for an elite few. Granted, that system creates a lot of employment worldwide. It has, however, also done a great job of screwing it up for many people across the globe. Left unfettered since the middle of last century, the two biggest areas to take a hit are the environment and human health.

We’ve been sold unhealthy food that our brains tell us tastes great, but is actually bad for us. We’re also brainwashed by body image so it’s mostly this side of the global disaster – unhealthy eating and the obesity epidemic – that gets people’s attention. But if you are starving or malnourished, or lost your access to food due to another war, trade restriction, land grab or unemployment, or you can’t fish in polluted waterways, then your priority is not comparing yourself to celebrities on Instagram. Nor are you likely to hear about a fancy Scandinavian report telling you about planetary boundaries.

While many of us do care about our health, as the EAT-Lancet Commission reports, millions across the world suffer from inadequate nutrition and some of that is through eating high calorie, low nutrient foods (sugary beverages, takeaways etc). The cost of that to health systems worldwide is phenomenal, especially for the next generation who will have to foot the bill. If people don’t care about their own personal health enough to change eating habits when they can afford to, imagine trying to get them to care about the impact their food has on the environment: on soil, water, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, energy use. Not easy.

Surprisingly, very few governments or global organisations have thought to join the dots between health of people and health of the planet through food. Until now. For three years over 30 scientists from different backgrounds have been breaking down the silos to write the EAT-Lancet report, with researchers from health and the environment sectors working together to see if there is a way to feed everyone without destroying the planet. That in itself is a great feat. Scientists are not known for collaborating across countries and sectors in this way.

What does this mean for New Zealand’s food system?

First, the EAT-Lancet report only looks at primary production. It does not look at manufacturing, processing, distribution, waste from packaging, or other consumer-fronting issues apart from health. This means other food businesses such as manufacturers and processors of primary products that need to be aware of their environmental impact do not fall under the ambit of the report. It focuses heavily on animal, fish, and produce production, at which New Zealand excels.

A drawback of the report is that it takes a cookie-cutter approach (probably a healthy cookie), lumping each country and the solutions together despite their primary production advantages or disadvantages. New Zealand has an advantage: Primary production is still the backbone of our economy. For the most part, our farming practices are not the same as those mentioned in the report, but they still come under criticism elsewhere for environmental impacts on soil and waterways. Last year revelations of large scale beef feedlots drew to consumers’ attention to the fact that not all our beef cattle are roaming on lush green pasture.

Nonetheless the findings of the EAT-Lancet report send a clear signal that times are changing. We export our food abroad and many of those countries are savvier than us about the food system. More and more consumers are demanding to know where their food comes from and how it is grown. Brand New Zealand has a fantastic opportunity to get this right and grow food authentically in a way that is environmentally sound and within our planetary boundaries.

New Zealand is not that savvy on these issues. We do not have strong policies on food systems and sustainability here, and health professionals grapple with what sustainability means just as much as food businesses and primary producers do. The story of where our food is produced and how it has had a positive impact on soil and waterways is not something you hear very often. Farmers that do this, and work hard to ensure their product strives for the best, will fare well in the EAT-Lancet scenarios.

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Those making disingenuous claims or who cannot put hand on heart and say where and how their meat was raised or their produce grown, will not. False claims include stating beef is purely grass-fed when it’s supplemented or raised on grain; that milk comes from grass-fed cows when they’re also fed palm kernel extract or held on feeding pads rather than roaming the paddocks; that a farm follows environmental best practice yet its stock still walk through waterways; or that apples are clean and green when they are doused with pesticides.

Our food producers need to improve practices if we are to come anywhere close to what is needed to grow food in 2050 within planetary or ecosystem boundaries, and to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions (about 49% of those currently come from agriculture).

As a food consumer, you will play a key role in continuing to hold our growers and farmers accountable, but to also support and praise them when they do this well. If there’s one key takeaway from the EAT-Lancet report, regardless of whether people agree with the science or not, it’s that breaking down the silos of how we think about these issues is the first step. Stepping into corners and being #yes2meat or #vegan and flinging stuff at each other across Twitter does nothing to help – it polarises the issue. In order for us to improve our food system for the health of ourselves, and our planet, we need to all work together to make changes, regardless of our food eating preferences.

Emily King is a food system expert and founder of spira.nz, cultivating change in our food system.


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