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Food, Planet, Health: Changing our Diet for Human Health and the Health of Our Planet

Julia Bird

January 29, 2019

Our planet currently supports approximately 7.5 billion people, and this number is growing by 5 million each year. We are lucky that advances in agricultural production have kept pace with population growth. As we head toward 2050, however, we need to make sure that we can continue to produce enough food for everyone without jeopardizing nutrient-rich diets. To meet the challenge and feed everyone a healthy diet, our food production systems need to become more sustainable. A recent report titled “Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems,” published on January 17 by the EAT-Lancet commission outlines several strategies the we can use to feed the world sustainably. 

The report outlines four key strategies to improve the sustainability of the food production system:

  1. Shift dietary patterns to increase the amount of plant-based foods and reduce animal-sourced protein and added sugars.
  2. Halve food waste.
  3. Improve agricultural practices to make them more sustainable.
  4. Implement food and energy production optimization measures such as increasing phosphorus recycling and phasing out first-generation biofuels. 

Luckily, sustainable diets can also be healthy. There are both health-related and environmental benefits to a largely plant-based diet. Increasing the consumption of plant-based proteins, fruits and vegetables leads to greater fiber and nutrient intakes. Decreasing the consumption of animal-sourced protein and added sugars reduces saturated fat and energy-dense food intake. Taken together, these dietary shifts can reduce rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer. 

Sustainable strategies are a challenge to implement on a global scale. National and international commitment to reaching these goals are key to the fulfilment of sustainable food system goals. Firstly, governments must help steer food consumption toward the healthier and more sustainable patterns outlined in the report. This can be achieved through education, use of health care services to improve diets, and improving the affordability and accessibility of healthy foods. Secondly, current agricultural priorities need to be adjusted to increase the production of nutritious foods in addition to meeting caloric demands. Thirdly, agricultural production needs to be further intensified, particularly the sustainable use of water and fertilizer. Fourth, the management of land and water resources needs to be further coordinated internationally. Fifth, food waste at both the production and consumer side should be reduced dramatically. 

With the changes outlined, the food supply system can be modified to meet the needs of future populations. The next step is for multiple sectors in government and agriculture to adopt the quantitative targets set out in the report. The health of our planet and its people rely on it. 

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Source: Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems: Food, Planet, Health. Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission. Published 17th January 2019 https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/