It’s time to launch a Paris Climate Agreement for food

The Great Food Transformation.
The Great Food Transformation.
Image: AP Photo/Seth Perlman
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The world needs to find a new global consensus—fashioned similarly to the Paris Climate Agreement—to address an increasingly problematic food system.

In short, the ways in which we feed ourselves won’t work in the long run. Current dieting patterns are bad for public health and they aren’t environmentally sustainable enough to maintain while also seriously combating the negative effects of climate change. That’s according to a group of 16 scientists from around the world who this week published a new report in the journal Lancet urgently calling upon nations to reassess and restructure the way the global population produces and consumes food.

To punctuate the urgency behind their work, the scientists and their respective institutions are embarking on a multi-month series of public events that will begin in Oslo on Jan. 17. They will go on to speak in more than 20 cities around the world—including New York, London, Jakarta, Washington DC, Paris, and New Delhi—to draw more public attention to the report.

They’ve dubbed their proposal “The Great Food Transformation,” and it lays out a new food system, with scientifically based targets, for achieving a diet they say will be sustainable and capable of feeding 10 billion people by 2050. If adopted, the new diet will prevent more than 11 million premature deaths per year, according to the report, by curbing obesity, undernutrition, and malnutrition. That represents a reduction in adult deaths by about 20%.

The report will be considered an affront by some. It proposes sweeping changes to some diets around the world, including that humanity eat next to no red meat, processed meat, added sugars, or refined grains. That would disrupt culinary norms in much of the developed world. Less controversially, it says people should get most of their nutrients from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils.

“This framework is universal for all food cultures and production systems in the world, with a high potential of local adaptation and scalability,” the report states.

It’s sure to catch industry attention in countries such as the US, where red meat is the staple of many meals. It will also cause a ruckus in nations in which major commodity crops—the majority of which go toward animal feed—make up significant portions of the food economy, including the US and Brazil. Getting nations to stand firm against the interests of titanic agriculture industries will be crucial, though, as the researchers warn even tiny increases in consumption of red meats and dairy foods would make their global goal nearly impossible to achieve.

On the other hand, if the report is embraced and sparks a serious global response, it may be the answer for how humans, whi a growing population on ever-warming planet, will be able to achieve healthier, more environmentally-sensitive lives.

“Food production is the largest cause of global environmental change,” the report states. “Agriculture occupies about 40% of global land, and food production is responsible for up to 30% of global greenhouse-gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use.”

Here are the changes

Individually, the proposed changes aren’t particularly new. This report is significant, though, because it ropes into one plan many topic areas that have been debated at length within separate scientific and political communities for years. They are broken into several sections:

  • International commitment. Without pulling the global community together to agree to adopt the following changes, the report is essentially moot.
  • Quality over quantity. The new food system should promote more biodiversity, while focusing less on major mono-crops that mostly go toward animal feed—think corn and soybeans—and more on a specific few nutritious crops that are meant to be fed directly to humans, such as barley, broccoli, and others. That will cut out most food animals, which have been linked to exacerbating climate change and adverse health issues. It would make the use of water more efficient, and it would decrease the amount of fertilizer, which is rich in nitrous oxide greenhouse gas, that is used.
  • Government oversight. The changes need to be regulated through the adoption of  new national policies. The report proposes that governments strengthen regulatory enforcement and reorganize massive and complicated agricultural subsidy programs to support more nutritious crops over those used to create animal feed.
  • Protection of ecosystems. Governments should adopt zero-expansion policies on new agriculture land into natural ecosystems, and better managing the oceans. “We have entered the sixth mass species extinction on Earth,” the report states. “This species extinction is an increasing threat to the Earth system and global food security and has the potential to fundamentally undermine our ability to sustainably feed the global population by 2050.”
  • Fix food waste. The report calls for nations to work together to halve global food loss and waste, a well-documented global problem.

Despite its monumental goals, the report is nuanced. For instance, the authors concede that animal-based foods shouldn’t be eliminated entirely. Meat is particularly good at delivering to humans important nutrients, and in some parts of the world, it’s useful to keep eating meat as-is, or even increase consumption, the report states. In Zambia, for instance, where animal-based foods account for about 164 calories per day, studies have shown that eating more meat would help curb malnutrition. Compare that to America, where people on average consume close to 430 calories of meat a day, which is more than enough, even too much as it is now linked to many health problems.

Based on a 2,500-calorie daily diet, the report suggests the following breakdown for its proposed diet, which the report authors argue can be tinkered to fit numerous omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan eating regimens:

The caveats

The academic report is striking in how matter-of-factly it lays out the tactics that will be required to make its proposals a reality. It leans particularly heavily on convincing the general public to embrace stark messaging about foods. The scientists say governments should launch concentrated campaigns to ban certain foods, or work to villainize some foods and manufacturing processes that are harmful to the planet and to public health. That includes taxing unhealthy foods, such as sugary drinks—a plan already touted (pdf) by the World Health Organization but one that has been the subject of considerable debate in the US.

“Data are sufficient and strong enough to warrant action,” the report concludes. “This commission shows that a Great Food Transformation is both necessary and achievable.”