Food Sustainability:
A discussion of the EAT-Lancet report

I was really interested to read the EAT-Lancet Commission’s ‘Planetary Health Diet’ paper published in January 2019. It led to a 3-part mini-series on my Instagram account, and I was very grateful for the thoughtful comments and discussion that followed. However, I felt that the topic deserved a slightly deeper-dive than is possible through Instagram alone, so have put together this article of some thoughts, extracts and further resources for those of you who are interested in reading more.

Food Sustainability: A discussion of the EAT-Lancet report

I am very aware that this is a complicated and somewhat controversial topic. There have been a lot of opinion pieces and rebuttals of the EAT-Lancet paper, from various sources. It is clearly not the final answer or definitive solution. However, I think food sustainability is still an important and interesting topic – and academic debate is a healthy way to further our collective knowledge and understanding of such complex issues.

[ Before diving into details, here is the link to the original paper: thelancet.com. And here is a useful executive summary and visual guide: eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/eat-lancet-commission-summary-report/ ]

What is the EAT-Lancet paper?

A group of scientists from around the world came together to debate, and ultimately try to find consensus, on a suggested global dietary pattern that not only supports human health, but also the health and sustainability of our environment. It is a noble goal, albeit a very challenging one.

On a more personal level, food sustainability and supporting responsible agricultural practices has been something that I have been thinking about for a while now. After all, so many of us want to do our bit for sustainability and be more conscious consumers, but it has often felt rather confusing to know how to go about doing so.

The scale of the problem

The report gives some quite shocking facts and figures, which highlight the scale of the nutritional problems facing our global population, and explain why this direction of research and work is considered quite so urgent.

Worldwide, there are more than 2.1 billion adults who are overweight or obese, and the prevalence of diabetes has almost doubled in the past 30 years. At the same time, however, there are still more than 820 million people who are undernourished, and more than 2 billion people with micronutrient (essential vitamin and mineral) deficiencies.

The report goes on to state “unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to our health and longevity than does unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined”. Because much of the global population is poorly nourished – whether through undernutrition or overnutrition – the authors therefore suggest that the world’s food intake needs to be urgently transformed towards a more equal and health-supporting dietary pattern.

At the same time as facing these massive nutritional challenges, food production is also having a major impact on the global environment. According to the report, agriculture occupies around 40% of the world’s land, contributes up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and uses 70% of our fresh water. More than 30% of world fish stocks are overfished, and misuse of agricultural chemicals has many adverse effects.

Ultimately, our own health depends on the health and sustainability of food production. This report has certainly opened up the conversation, and is perhaps the beginning of a movement towards finding a diet that is both good for us all, and good for the earth.

Food Sustainability: A discussion of the EAT-Lancet report

What does the diet contain?

The EAT-Lancet recommendations encourage a largely plant-based diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, pulses and plant oils, with very modest amounts of animal protein – and in particular, it encourages a reduction in red meat (amounting to a small portion no more than 2-3 times a month).

There have been various criticisms of the suggested diet, including that it lacks certain micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), or has a suboptimal distribution of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats). Given these criticisms, and remembering that this is essentially a ‘one-size-fits-all’ diet (which are always, always going to have limitations), I think the key here for us as readers, is probably to avoid getting too bogged down in the details.

Remember too that these are general population guidelines – designed primarily to help governments, industry and large organisations shape their policies and future plans – and are therefore NOT necessarily right for us as unique individuals.

We are all different, and therefore we must learn to listen as much (if not more) to our own bodies as we do to external advice.

Having said that, many of us are interested in what steps we could potentially take towards a sustainable way of eating. Here are just a few pointers from the EAT-Lancet paper, which I think also align with more general healthy eating guidelines.

  • Include a few portions of healthy plant fats into your diet each day, such as olive oil and nuts and seeds.
  • Get familiar with cooking and enjoying more plant-based protein sources, such as legumes and pulses.
  • Choose minimally processed, whole grain sources of carbohydrates (such as oats, brown rice, buckwheat, millet etc.) over refined or processed alternatives, where possible. The same goes for potatoes.
  • Aim to have a minimum of 5 portions of fruit and veg a day (although I recommend aiming for even more if possible). Try to eat more vegetables than fruit. Be aware of seasonality
  • Try to get a rainbow of colours onto your plate, especially dark green leafy vegetables and those which are orange / red.
  • If you do eat meat, or other animal-based products (such as dairy, eggs, poultry etc.) consider consuming less overall (both in terms of portion size and frequency), but choose better quality – organic is a good starting point, but organic & regenerative may be even better. See below for some links to further information on this. It’s complicated!

The bigger picture

Whilst I think we do need to start (or indeed, continue) giving sustainability a thought when making our food choices, it is also important to remember that this is just one part of a much bigger environmental picture.

The dietary guidelines the EAT-Lancet paper outlines not necessarily give consideration to more localised agricultural concerns, such as seasonality, food miles, packaging, waste (not only in our own kitchens, but also on the farms and in shops) or animal feed and welfare (i.e., grass-fed vs. grain fed / organic or regenerative production). Nor does it necessarily consider the ethics of various farming practices, which is a big consideration for many.

Personally, I am also trying to be increasingly conscious of my other purchasing choices too – from minimising plastics, to recycling, choosing sustainable travel, fashion, energy and more. It is not just about food.

A pragmatic approach

I don’t know about you, but all of this can seem a rather daunting amount of information to process in amongst the busyness of our daily lives. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I keep finding myself coming back to Barack Obama’s phrase ‘Better is Good’. Better is good, perfect is unachievable. I will just keep on trying to make incremental steps in the right direction.

So here are the 3 actions I am going to focus on for now.

  1. Focus more of my meals around fruits, vegetables, health plant-based fats and legumes, and where animal products are used, try to make them as sustainable as possible.
  2. Aim for improvement, not perfection – especially around minimising any food waste.
  3. Buy wisely – consciously support producers who are putting in the effort to make sustainability and soil health a priority.

The final word…

If you find the constant stream of new information regarding what we supposedly ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be eating quite wearisome – as I sometimes do – then perhaps remembering Michael Pollan’s wise quote is a reassuring and consistent backstop:

Eat real food. Mostly Plants. Not too much.

Sharing information

I wanted to leave you with a few resources that I have found particularly helpful or interesting in case you would like to find out more. This is by no means and exhaustive list, and I am sure there are lots more great resources available, but here’s a few to whet your appetite.

Books / resources

Videos

For a very moving account of this type of farming in action, do take a look at Alan Savory’s TED talk: watch here

Although this report questions some of the points made in the video: fcrn.org.uk/

And here is a great introductory video on the importance of soil health for our own health, and for the health of the planet: watch here

Ethical suppliers

Riverford Farm: riverford.co.uk
Riverford also has a great new blog, Wicked Leeks: wickedleeks.riverford.co.uk 

Consider joining a CSA scheme – which stands for ‘Community Supported Agriculture’. It is a movement gaining rapid popularity in the USA, but is started to gain ground here in the UK too.

Take a look at the website below for lots more information, and to find your nearest scheme: communitysupportedagriculture.org.uk