A sustainable alternative to meatless meals: Responding to the EAT-Lancet report

January 30, 2019

By Robin White
Assistant Professor of Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

The recent report by the EAT-Lancet Commission, Food in the Anthropocene,* calls for radical changes to global diets to ensure the world’s food system provides sufficient nutritious food for 10 billion people in a way that is environmentally sustainable.

The most provocative suggestion offered by the report’s authors is the near elimination of animal-source proteins from the global diet.

The authors acknowledge their recommended diet, or “reference” diet, may vary within some bounds country-to-country. Yet the report gives little consideration to how this “great food transformation” would take place, or to the impact of an animal-free food system on the economic vitality of agricultural economies, rural communities and the people who depend on the food system for their livelihoods.

But meatless meals are not the only way to achieve the objectives outlined in the Lancet report. Our analysis of the EAT-Lancet diet indicates that the same nutritional and environmental goals can be achieved by continuing to improve the productivity of animal and crop agriculture, combined with a society-wide commitment to eliminating food waste.

Key Questions

To more closely examine the EAT-Lancet diet, we can start with two critical questions: 1) does the diet meet nutrient requirements for humans; and 2) can the diet be scaled to feed 10 billion people?

Question 1: What nutrients are lacking in the diet? In this analysis, we have used the USDA Foods List and the recommended consumption pattern for the EAT-Lancet reference diet to predict the nutrient composition of the diet, relative to the requirements of the average American citizen.

The EAT-Lancet diet is deficient in Ca, P, and the Vitamins A, D and Choline. Although most nutritionists agree it is better to get nutrients from dietary ingredients, rather than supplements, it is possible to use synthetic supplements to make up deficiencies in these nutrients.

Question 2: Is it possible to feed the diet to 10 billion people? In this analyses, we have used global food production estimates from FAOStat to evaluate what types of shifts in agricultural systems would be needed to support 10 billion people consuming this diet.

With the EAT-Lancet diet, we would use only a fraction of the grains, roots/tubers, meat, eggs, and palm oil currently produced and would require dramatic expansions in the legume and tree nut industries.  Expansion of legume products could possibly be accomplished by converting cropland used for grain production into legume production; however, expansion of the tree nut industry may be more complicated. Tree nuts are particularly susceptible to climate change and require unique soil and climatological conditions for optimal growth.

This diet also assumes a global “about-face” in consumer preferences and consumption patterns.  As incomes rise across the world, consumers choose to eat more meat.  China’s imports of fresh and chilled pork increased from 136,000 metric tons in 2000 to 1.62 million metric tons in 2016, in response to rising demand from an expanding middle class.

Not only would the EAT-Lancet diet require a dramatic shift in how agricultural land is used and in consumer demand, it also assumes a substantial societal shift toward reducing or eliminating food waste, especially of fruits and vegetables, to achieve the report’s nutritional and environmental objectives. A 2011 report from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) indicated that fruits and vegetables currently have the highest loss of any food category, 45 to 55 percent by weight.  This represents a loss of nutrients and a loss of the resources used to produce them.  For example, it would take 4 trillion gallons of irrigation water to produce the fruits and vegetables wasted in the U.S. in one year.

Another way forward

Many of the take-home messages of the EAT-Lancet document focus on the environmental impact of agriculture and the need for a “great food transformation” to achieve sustainability.  According to the Contributions of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture, forestry and land use change account for 24 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to the FAO, 2,769 km3 of water is used for agriculture annually. This accounts for 69 percent of total global water withdrawal per year. Agriculture in Asia accounts for 2,069 km3 (75 percent) of agricultural water use. According to the FAO in 2015, 27 percent of the global land area was associated with agricultural activities such as cropping and grassland production.

Although there is more work to do, the historical data suggest that the global agricultural system is already providing more food from fewer resources.  From 1960 to 2017, the FAO data indicates that availability of plant and animal products have increased by 171 kg/person and 21 kg/person/year, respectively. Over the same timescale, thanks to improvements in productivity, crop and grassland area has decreased by 4,050 m2/person, agricultural water use has decreased by 143 cubic meters/person, and agricultural GHG have increased by 68 kg of CO2 equivalents/person.

With improvements in feed efficiency, better animal care practices and improved genetics, fewer animals are needed to meet rising global demand for dairy and meat products.  In the U.S., the number of dairy cows fell by nearly 9 million animals from 1961 to 2009, while milk output rose steadily.

Since the 1990s, the primary source of agricultural output growth has come from the efficient use of land, labor, fertilizer and other inputs, as measured by Total Factor Productivity (TFP). Given all the progress agriculture has made, it is reasonable to ask whether there is an alternative “reference diet” that might make use of the current and future technological investments across agricultural sectors to meet the same nutritional and environmental goals. In response to this query, we offer the following diet for consideration.

Author’s note: This diet is based on the EAT-Lancet reference diet, so it is also deficient in Ca, P, and the vitamins A, D and choline; these deficiencies were intended so the diets could be as comparable as possible, nutritionally.

This reference diet provides the same nutrient content as the Lancet diet.  It also assumes a significant reduction in food waste: more than 90 percent of global production of several food products would be consumed, with very little waste.  This will require a significant commitment to increase food accessibility and affordability, particularly nutrient-dense foods such as animal protein and fruits and vegetables.

Focusing on productivity, rather than eliminating a nutritionally valuable food group that consumers continue to demand, will limit the agricultural environmental impact to current levels and avoids the unnecessary challenge of identifying a biologically feasible way to restructure the agricultural system to provide sufficient tree nuts and legumes as would be required under the EAT-Lancet recommendations.

Our research shows that by prioritizing productivity, it is possible to sustainably produce sufficient nutritious affordable food for 10 billion people, while protecting consumer choice and supporting the economic vitality of the food system and the livelihoods of producers.

 

*Anthropocene: the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

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