A study conducted in 16 countries says world’s eating habits will not leave enough food to feed all and it is detrimental to the climate too
Giving the world a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources may become untenable because for the first time in 200,000 years of human existence, we are no more in synchronisation with the human planet and nature. This dire warning was issued in a study done by the EAT-Lancet commission on healthy diets and sustainable food systems in the anthropocene, which was published on January 17, 2019.
Anthropocene is defined as time when human activities have had an environmental impact on the Earth regarded as constituting a distinct geological age.
The study, which was a result of more than two years of collaboration between 37 experts from 16 countries, said more than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and morbidity. Also, global food production, which is based on people’s eating habits, is the biggest way humans are pressuring the Earth, threatening local ecosystems and the stability of the Earth system.
The report said, “The world’s dominant diets for the past 50 years are no longer nutritionally optimal, are a major contributor to climate change and are accelerating erosion of natural biodiversity. Unless there is a comprehensive shift in how the world eats, it is unlikely that it will achieve the sustainable development goals—with food and nutrition cutting across all 17 SDGs—or meet the Paris Agreement goals.”
The human cost of our faulty food systems is that almost 1 billion people are hungry, and almost 2 billion people are eating too much wrong food, added the 47-page report.
The report clearly spells out that humanity’s dominant diets prove to be a double whammy as they are neither good for us, nor for the planet. It adds that the global burden of non-communicable diseases may worsen this and what will further reduce the stability of the earth system are the effects of food production on greenhouse-gas emissions, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, biodiversity loss, and water and land use.
“Emission of methane and nitrous oxide from agricultural production are estimated to be 5.0-5.8 giga tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year while carbon dioxide emission from conversion f natural ecosystems, especially forests, to croplands and pastures is estimated to be 2.2-6.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year,” says the report.
Pointing out the reasons of the unhealthy evolution, the study says one of the factors is that though the agriculture production is at the highest level it has ever been, but it is neither resilient nor sustainable and intensive meat production is on an unstoppable trajectory comprising the single largest contributor to climate change.
The report also casts aspersions on the industry. “Industry has too lost its way, with commercial and political interests having far too much influence, with human health and our planet suffering the consequences,” it says.
The dietary shift that is needed requires a dramatic reduction of consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, by at least 50 per cent, with a recommended daily combined intake of 14 g (in a range that suggests total meat consumption of no more than 28 g/day), with variations in the change required according to the region. At the same time, an overall increase in consumption of more than 100 per cent is needed for legumes, nuts, fruit, and vegetables, with changes again varying according to region. This shift will also help reduce premature deaths worldwide by 19-23 per cent.
“We estimated that changes in food production practices could reduce agricultural green-house gas emissions in 2050 by 10 per cent, whereas increased consumption of plant-based diets could reduce emission by 80 per cent,” the report says. Staying within the boundary for climate change can be achieved by consuming plant-based diets.
The report suggests multipronged strategy. It bats for the fact that the agricultural priorities need to shift from producing high quantities of food to healthy food. “Production range should focus on a diverse range of nutritious foods, like biodiversity-enhancing food production systems, rather than increased volume of few crops, most of which are used for animal production,” the report says.
For high-quality output, the report entails reducing yield gaps, radical improvement in the efficiency and fertiliser use, recycling phosphorus, redistributing global use of nitrogen and phosphorus among other measures. Effective and coordinated governance of land and oceans is also a must. “Such governance includes implementing a zero-expansion policy of new agricultural land into natural ecosystems and species-rich forests, restoration and re-forestation of degraded land and establishing mechanisms of international land-use governance,” says the report.
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