The Great Food Transformation

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

A superb new report, ‘Food in the Anthropocene', published last week by The EAT/Lancet Commission sets out with tremendous clarity how “global food production constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation” in the world today. Moreover, it explains how “a diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal sourced foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits”. It is a must-read for policy-makers everywhere, but if you don’t have time even to peruse the hard-hitting executive summary, these are the key points:

The food we eat, the ways we produce it, and the amounts wasted or lost have major impacts on human health and environmental sustainability. Foods sourced from animals, especially red meat, have relatively high environmental footprints per serving compared to other food groups. This has an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, land use and biodiversity loss. This is particularly the case for animal source foods from grain fed livestock.

To stay within planetary sustainability boundaries and improve human health “global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than fifty per cent.”

There is a huge “diet gap” between what we currently eat and what is healthy and sustainable for an eco-system that can support a multi-billion human population. For example, humans consume (and therefore rear/grow) nearly 300% more red meat and starchy foods than is healthy for the planet.

This over-consumption is more pronounced in the richest parts of the world. The United States, for example, over consumes red meat by more than 600%, eggs by 234% and chickens by 268%. Similarly, I was in Denmark this week, where there are 6 times as many pigs as people and diet is a primary reason why this otherwise environmentally sustainable country has a very high per-capita carbon footprint when you measure it based on products and services consumed, wherever they are produced.

The primary issue, therefore, is to reduce excessive consumption in wealthier countries, with the linked benefits in improved health and reduced costs of ill-health.

The solution can be delicious. The planetary health diet is flexible and includes ranges of different food groups that together constitute an optimal diet for human health and environmental sustainability. It emphasizes a plant-forward diet where whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes comprise a greater proportion of foods consumed. Meat and dairy constitute important parts of the diet but in significantly smaller proportions than whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

Faced with the above evidence, the authors conclude that there needs to be a ‘Great Food Transformation’. Just as there it is nothing in the laws of physics or chemistry that prevents humanity from avoiding catastrophic climate change (although we are stumbling inexorably towards a situation where those laws will be against us), but almost everything about current political and economic policy needs to change to establish a climate-safe future, so the solutions on sustainable food are largely well-known and in humanity’s gift to control.

The problem is that the evidence is being ignored. Despite the fact that global food production constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation, there are no globally agreed scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production. This needs to change and fast, requiring huge international collaboration across governments and businesses, along with pro-active citizen-led lifestyle change.

The report sets out five key requirements to achieve a Great Food Transformation:

  • International and national commitment to shift towards healthy diets.
  • Reorient agricultural priorities from producing high quantities of food to producing healthy food.
  • Sustainably intensify food production to increase high quality output.
  • Strong co-ordinated governance of land and oceans.
  • At least halve food losses and waste, in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Delivering the above would require a complex international architecture. The obvious challenge is that inter-governmental institutions are currently incapable of taking forward the Paris Agreement, let alone agreeing on what’s needed to transform the politically sensitive food sector. Global agri-business, dominated by a small number of hugely powerful conglomerates, is just as capable of disrupting action towards healthy food production and consumption as the fossil fuel industry has been at preventing action towards clean energy.

That does not in any way diminish the importance of the EAT/Lancet report. The right way to start solving any problem is to establish sound evidence base targets and identify potential solutions based on that data. But politics has primacy, as always, and the critical issue now will be to establish the beginnings of an alliance that can snowball into a global movement to achieve the Great Food Transformation.

Progressive city governments will have a big role to play in this solution. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation this week published great research on Cities and the Circular Economy of Food Systems, which showed that by 2050 80% of the food produced globally will be consumed in urban settings, and put forth a path for transitioning to a more sustainable and regenerative system.

When it comes to pursuing solutions around sustainable food systems, C40, in partnership with EAT, has already established a vibrant best-practice sharing network on food systems. Many mayors are already instituting many of the recommendations of the EAT/Lancet report at big-city scale.

There are many great examples of cities developing sustainable food systems strategies, of guiding purchasing decisions and serving menus in their public facilities to improve the consumption of fruit and vegetables while halving waste and boosting local production; they have been fighting the proliferation of junk food by introducing healthful food options through zoning and incentives (and even by creating “markets on wheels”), by banning junk food outlets in and close to schools and banning junk food advertisements on public property and testing high tech solutions to sustainably intensify food production.  Food waste is also an enormous area for action, and cities have been piloting efforts replacing chemical fertilizers with food waste compost in the fields surrounding the cities; they have also been leading on reducing food waste by recovering surplus food directly from industrial, retail, and catering companies, and through the use of taxes or rebates for retailers and caterers to join food surplus recovery circuits.

I am pleased to note the rapid growth in major cities of younger people shifting to a full or partial plant-based diet, and a ballooning market for organic and healthy foodstuffs.

EAT, and particularly its dynamic founder, Gunhild Stordalen, deserve huge praise for pulling together this impressive analysis with The Lancet. Now we need to get on with establishing the coalition to deliver its recommendations and to fully ally the fights against our inter-linked food and environmental crises, turning potential disaster into a prosperous way forward for humanity.