Good news, Earthlings! An international team of scientists reported that it is indeed possible to feed everyone on the planet a healthy and environmentally sustainable diet by the year 2050.
All it will take is a wholesale, radical change to what foods we eat and the way we produce them.
“We call it the Great Food Transformation,” said Jessica Fanzo, director of the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program at Johns Hopkins University. “We need big transformation and massive cooperation to meet this global challenge.”
In a report published in the medical journal the Lancet, Fanzo — along with 36 colleagues from 16 countries — released a set of scientifically determined targets to guide food producers, consumers and policymakers toward creating a food system that will improve human health and the health of the planet.
The proposed diet, based on a two-year review of hundreds of nutrition studies, is not as scary as one might think. Insects are not required eating. No one is asking anyone to become a vegan.
The authors say that red meat can still be on a globally sustainable menu but in drastically reduced quantities. They recommend a diet, based on an average intake of 2,500 calories a day, that includes about 1 tablespoon of red meat per day, the equivalent of one decent-sized hamburger a week, or one steak a month.
They said they are not trying to prescribe what to eat or how to eat. “It’s not a blanket approach, but when you look at the data there are certain individuals or populations that don’t need that much red meat for their own health,” Fanzo said. “Some people get too much. Some people get too little.”
People in North America eat more than 6 times the recommended amount of red meat, the report said, while countries in South Asia eat half of what’s recommended. For other protein sources the researchers recommend roughly two servings of fish per week, and 1½ eggs per week.
The report said the largest share of daily calories, 35 percent, should come from whole grains, including rice, wheat and corn, and starchy tubers like potatoes and cassava. The recommendations included unsaturated fats, milk, cheese and nuts, and lots of green vegetables.
Overall, the guidelines called for a doubling of global consumption of fruits, nuts, vegetables and legumes, and cutting the consumption of red meat in half. It also said added sugars should become just 5 percent of our total caloric intake.
“It is very consistent with many traditional diets including the Mediterranean diet,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who co-chaired the report. “This is not radical at all in many culinary traditions.”
It would also lead to global improvements in human health. If everyone on the planet adapted these dietary rules 11 million premature deaths would be avoided each year, he said.
The Lancet report pointed to a broader problem of disparity: Of the 7.6 billion people on Earth today, nearly 1 billion don’t have enough food, 2 billion are overweight or obese and another 2 billion “consume low-quality diets that cause micronutrient deficiencies and contribute to a substantial rise in the incidence of diet-related obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases.”
In addition, researches said, unhealthy diets are responsible for more deaths than unsafe sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco use combined.
The Lancet report also made clear that individual consumer choices would not be enough to avert what the authors called “catastrophic damage to the planet.” It urged governments to encourage healthy food choices and ensure access to nutritious food. It also suggested that global agriculture policy emphasize not just producing more food, but more “nutritious plant-based foods.”
Considering that the world is expected to have a population of 9.8 billion people by 2050, it is clear that a massive change is needed, the authors said. “It’s a win-win,” said Johan Rockström, professor of environmental science at Stockholm University, who worked on the study. “Adopting a healthy diet helps us deal with the climate and meet sustainable development goals.”
The New York Times contributed to this report.