13 Feb 2019

How to eat to save the planet

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:10 pm on 13 February 2019

Cutting the amount of meat and sugar we consume in half will save the planet from further environmental degradation, help stem the epidemic of non-communicable diseases and feed the millions who go hungry every day, a new report says.

These are the findings of a study by the The EAT-Lancet Commission, an organisation that studies healthy diets and sustainable food production.

A combine harvester working in a wheat field,(focus on front row of wheat)

Photo: 123RF

Thirty-seven experts from 16 countries have come up with a plan to feed the world's growing population without harming the planet. 

New Zealander Dr Sudhvir Singh is the director of policy for the commission and a co-author of the report and he told Jesse Mulligan food production and our diets are wreaking havoc on our health and the planet.

“Food is one of the biggest drivers of our environmental problems whether that’s climate change, water pollution or loss of bio-diversity, but also food is the biggest single driver of ill-health all around the world.”

Some of us have too much, many millions more go hungry, he says.

“We have 800 million going to bed hungry every night, but alarmingly over two billion people are affected by overweight-obesity driving a global epidemic of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

He says the world’s food production system is broken – it’s wasteful, polluting and uses precious resources to grow food that damages us.

“Our food production systems globally are unsustainable, they require too much land, they’re emitting approximately one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions and are requiring a lot of artificial fertilisers and pesticides - all those problems are adding up massively.

“Dietary patterns are moving to a western diet, heavy in sugars and heavy in red meat and we’re also wasting a lot of food, it’s not even reaching our plates, or if it’s reaching our plates and we’re wasting it.”

The solution to this problem is readily available, he says, a significant change in our diets.

“In broad terms it requires halving the amount of red meat and sugar that we’re eating and doubling the amount of fruit and vegetables nuts, whole grains and legumes.”

In practical terms this means we would eat one serve of red meat a week, chicken once a week, and fish twice a week, he says.

“So four servings of animal protein a week, and the rest of the time focussed more on fresh plant-based ingredients,” he says.

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 Dr Sudhvir Singh Photo: University of Auckland

In western countries like New Zealand it will require quite a substantial reduction in red meat and he says the goal now is to make plant-based foods and non-meat sources of protein more attractive to people, and more available.

“We need to make the foods that are good for us much more available and more exciting.

“We are working with a bunch of chefs around the world to demonstrate that there is a range of different meals that are attractive and easy and affordable.”

So how does a New Zealander eating less meat help a malnourished person in another part of the world? Interconnectedness, he says.

“We live on one planet and meat requires a certain amount of resource inputs; it requires a certain amount of land resources that are ultimately limited on the planet.

“Furthermore, the meat production system generates a lot of greenhouse gases that are global, and global warming is one of the biggest drivers of poor food yields.”

On a national level, government food policy is contradictory, he says, with MPI concerned with growing intensive production and other departments battling the consequences of a high meat protein and sugar-based diet

“We have the Ministry of Health trying to treat record rates of diabetes and heart disease, driven by the same food, and the Ministry of Education trying to work out how to reduce junk food in schools.”

He believes a minster for food is part of the answer.

“That will lead to much more coherent approaches across government, which means we aren’t incentivising things that ultimately are harming the environment.”   

He acknowledges that this is an interventionist approach.

“We’re seeing alarming rates of preventable diseases which we’re all paying for through our healthcare system and through loss of productivity and which we’re also paying for in terms of the environmental clean-up. 

“Agriculture is not part of our emissions trading scheme right now and so if we factor in the true costs of what it takes to produce food and the impacts that has on the environment and our health, then I think we can have a more level playing field and create the conditions that make it easier for people to access healthier and more sustainable food.”

For more information on the report go here.

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