Paris, France | AFP | The way humanity produces and eats food must radically change to avoid millions of deaths and “catastrophic” damage to the planet, according to a landmark study published Thursday.
The key to both goals is a dramatic shift in the global diet — roughly half as much sugar and red meat, and twice as many vegetables, fruits and nuts, a consortium of three dozen researchers concluded in The Lancet, a medical journal.
“We are in a catastrophic situation,” co-author Tim Lang, a professor at the University of London and policy lead for the EAT-Lancet Commission that compiled the 50-page study, told AFP.
Currently, nearly a billion people are hungry and another two billion are eating too much of the wrong foods, causing epidemics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Unhealthy diets account for up to 11 million avoidable premature deaths every year, according to the most recent Global Disease Burden report.
At the same time the global food system is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the biggest driver of biodiversity loss, and the main cause of deadly algae blooms along coasts and inland waterways.
Agriculture — which has transformed nearly half the planet’s land surface — also uses up about 70 percent of the global fresh water supply.
“To have any chance of feeding 10 billion people in 2050 within planetary boundaries” — the limits on Earth’s capacity to absorb human activity — “we must adopt a healthy diet, slash food waste, and invest in technologies that reduce environmental impacts,” said co-author Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Impact Research.
– Where’s the beef? –
“It is doable but it will take nothing less than global agricultural revolution,” he told AFP.
The cornerstone of “the great food transformation” called for in the study is a template human diet of about 2500 calories per day.
“We are not saying everyone has to eat in the same way,” Lang said by phone. “But broadly — especially in the rich world — it means a reduction of meat and dairy, and a major increase in plant consumption.”
The diet allows for about seven grammes (a quarter of an ounce) of red meat per day, and up to 14. A typical hamburger patty, by comparison, is 125 to 150 grammes.
For most rich nations, and many emerging ones such as China and Brazil, this would represent a drastic five-to-ten-fold reduction.
Beef is the main culprit.
Not only do cattle pass massive quantities of planet-warming methane, huge swathes of carbon-absorbing forests –- mostly in Brazil -– are cut down every year to make room for them.