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Feeding the ten billion

It requires transforming the food system to address obesity, improve health, and protect the environment

COMMENT | Line Gordon | Our current diets are bad for our health and are harming the planet. Two billion people are now overweight or obese. Poor diet is the biggest cause of noncommunicable disease in the world, posing a greater risk of morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse combined.

The way we produce and consume this food, meanwhile, damages Earth’s life-support system. It accounts for about one-quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions and is the biggest cause of land-use change, biodiversity loss, and water extraction, leaving rivers dried out.

The sheer volume of books on healthy eating and weight loss suggests that people want to move to healthier diets. But few countries are taking action to improve diets and preserve the environment. The big question is whether we can sustainably provide a healthy diet to a global population that is projected to reach ten billion by 2050.

Two years ago, the EAT-Lancet Commission, comprising 37 scientists from 16 countries – me included – set out to provide an answer. We began by determining what a good diet for a healthy life should contain. We then explored the implications of such a diet for global sustainability of food production in the future.

The Commission published its findings in January in the medical journal The Lancet. Our report identifies, for the first time, scientific targets for diets and the global food-production system. With more than 5,000 stories about the report already in the international media, its release clearly has hit a nerve. That is not surprising, given that its findings have implications for food companies, farmers, and consumers everywhere.

Our main conclusion, supported by reams of peer-reviewed evidence, is that feeding ten billion people on a sustainable planet is possible. But doing so will require a transformation of the food system to address obesity, improve health, end forest loss, curb greenhouse-gas emissions, and protect the oceans.

The world must do three big things in particular. It needs to halve the amount of food waste by 2050. It must move to more efficient and sustainable production systems and invest more in healthier crops. And people need to eat more fruit, vegetables, nuts, and legumes and reduce their dairy and red-meat consumption. Our analysis indicates that moving to such a balanced diet could prevent 11 million premature deaths per year.

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