Thinking

The Planetary Health Diet: What It Got Right And What It Got Wrong

24th January 2019

The recently published Eat Lancet report calls for a dramatic overhaul of the world’s food systems and people’s diets, but what is this Planetary Health Diet they’re proposing? We’ve taken a look at the report to see what we think it got right, what it got wrong and what is just plain confusing.

Planetary-Health-plate1

The Planetary Health Plate consists of 50% fruit and veg and a dramatic reduction in meat.

 

What is it?

The Eat Lancet report was published by an international group of distinguished scientists. It calls for a dramatic overhaul of the world’s food systems and people’s diets. The report advocates a new ‘Planetary Health Diet’ as the only way of preserving our natural environment and keeping people healthy. As you would expect, the conclusions of the report have sparked a lot of debate.

What it looks like the report got right

There is so much to applaud in this report. The scientists rightly argue that we need to move away from the mono-cultured farming of single crops to mixed systems that produce nutritious food and enhance biodiversity. This is hardly contentious. The damage that mono-cultures have on our soils and the natural environment have been well documented. And it is great to see that this report recognises how sustainable farming systems can prevent climate change by restoring fertility in the soils and taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

Another key pillar of the Lancet Commission report is to feed everyone on existing agricultural land, rather than expanding into natural ecosystems and species-rich rainforests. In some parts of the world, and for certain foods, this issue is particularly acute. Take the expansion of palm oil plantations across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which has led to huge destruction of tropical rainforests. So the recommendation to feed everyone on existing agricultural land does in principle seem like a good idea.

Finally, food waste gets a mention, with a call for a reduction in excess production by suppliers and a dramatic reduction in wastage by consumers. The Commission rightly highlights the role that new technology can play here. And at Farmdrop we know from first-hand experience the benefit that new technology can bring to reducing food waste at source.

What in the report looks confusing and contradictory?

Naturally you would expect the analysis in a report recommending a ‘global diet’ to be brutally simplistic and narrow. And it certainly is. The diet itself recommends lots of whole grains, vegetables and low amounts of animal foods, which at face value would seem okay.

Planetary-Health-Diet-Square-1

But when you take a closer look at the figures, you see that a Planetary Health Diet would see the average person getting more of their daily calories from sugars (120) than from animal-source foods like beef, chicken and eggs (119). The report suggests the equivalent of one beef burger and a couple of portions each of chicken and fish over the course of a week, whereas at least half of our diet should be made of fruit and vegetables. Almost 30% of the caloric intake of the diet should come from whole grains, with more calories coming from fruits rather than vegetables, despite the latter being more nutritious and lower in sugar. Dairy foods are also included in the global diet, despite the fact that some ethnic groups can’t eat much dairy at all.

The meat debate

The majority of the criticism of the report has centred around its recommendation to dramatically reduce animal proteins, particularly red meat where it recommends a 50% reduction. It is here where the report’s dual aims of promoting a diet that is healthy and sustainable appears to come into conflict. The debate on meat consumption and human health is fiercely debated and the science underpinning it is not clearcut. Lifestyle factors for example are very difficult to control in scientific trials about different diets. So the conclusion the Lancet report makes that diets with low animal-source foods means improved health benefits is not as clear cut as it claims to be.

The response from some health professionals has been that the calls for meat reduction have been motivated by environmental reasons, rather than for health reasons.

However, by calling for a drastic reduction in certain foods and an increase in others, the commission overlooks the uniqueness of different regions. Some areas of grassland for example are unsuitable for anything other than grazing animals, like a lot of the UK. And in these cases, is it actually better for the environment to eat a locally reared, grass-fed cut of meat, compared to a fruit or vegetable imported from halfway across the world and wrapped in plastic? Clearly, the report also missed an opportunity to explain the differences between sustainably reared and factory farmed meat.

Can you have a one-size-fits-all planetary diet?

Whatever the answer, the report fails to address these more nuanced points. Whatever you think about healthy food, it is undeniable that different parts of the world have different culinary traditions and tastes.

The Lancet Report puts forward these example meals

As the authors themselves admit, food is not just about health and the environment it shapes society, culture and the economy. Unfortunately, all of these topics were purposefully placed outside the Commission’s remit. The problem with this is immediately obvious in the six photographs of example meals, none of which would seem to fit into any country’s culinary traditions or history.

Does the report push things forward?

At its best, you could argue that the Lancet report has served its purpose of getting people to recognise the link between what they eat, their personal health and the planet. At its worst, you could argue that it’s promoting a homogenous diet, founded on contentious science, and will only confuse more people.

What do you think? Leave your comments below. 

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