posted in News

Planetary Health Diets: The Answer to Sustainable Food Systems?

In the past decade, huge investments have been made in plant-based companies that produce meat and dairy alternatives. Such companies in America alone have had over £12billion pounds of investment in the last 10 years and of course coincides with a rise in the prevalence of vegan and vegetarian diets. But why?

The environmental impacts of the meat and diary industry have been rigorously reported in recent times with documentaries such as cowspiracy exposing the true environmental costs through global multimedia platforms such as Netflix. Previously, the negatives associates with food were dominantly discussed in isolation to health and nutrition, but we are now discussing them in relation to the health of our planet.

Food systems contribute almost 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and two thirds of these result from producing animal feed for livestock. With global population ever increasing, we must take stock of our food systems and extent of our demand for certain food groups. It is estimated between 1800 to 2500 gallons of water are required for one pound of beef. Of course, there are also negative externalities involved in establishing mono-culture crops for the purposes of plant-based substitutes which we also need to accept. However, it is widely accepted the intensity and pressure on our natural systems to produce livestock in comparison to plants is far greater.

The point here is to consider how we can make small changes to how and what we consume. The key challenge we are faced with is to provide an increasing global population with nutritional diets from sustainable food systems, it is too simplistic to focus on one food group, although reducing meat consumption will play a big role. A sustainable food system is not only one with plenty of supply, but one in balance with the ecosystems it operates within.

Our current systems make truly sustainable diets difficult to achieve. A new report from the LANCET Commission Food Planet Health released in 2019 put forwards their concept of planetary health diets, to guide international restructuring and decarbonising of food systems. A planetary health diet describes behaviours of food consumption that are both healthy and environmentally sustainable, measured using scientific targets for intakes of specific food groups. It essentially concerns the health of humans and the state of the natural systems on which the health depends on.

Some strategies to be implemented across the globes food systems at local, regional and international scales are:

  • Reduction in yield gaps – a crops ‘real’ yield is regularly far less than its actual potential yield. – sustainable intensification.
  • Educating farmers on the emissions embodied in different feeding regimes and feed production systems.
  • Realigning land management processes whereby reducing emissions is a central strategy.
  • International agreements on targets for healthy diets and sustainable production, based on unanimously accepted science.
  • Use of technology to optimise water and fertiliser usage.
  • Land use for agriculture to become a net sink of carbon instead of a net source.
  • Reduce food waste within production by 50%.
  • Improve information on plant-based food, reduce their costs and improve their accessibility.
  • Agricultural and marine policies on production should be orientated around nutrition rather than quantities.
  • Redistribution of global use of nitrogen and phosphorous.
  • Only use land already allocated to agricultural to meet demand from growing populations through zero-expansion policies at international and national scales.

Click on the Infographic for a closer look at how you could contribute through different consumption habits!

Infographic from LANCET suggesting the balance to a achieving a planetary health diet.

Infographic from LANCET suggesting the balance to a  achieving a planetary health diet.


Why this new approach ?

We should always consider different cultural context and give consideration to the role animal based foods have in people’s diets across local and regional geographies. It is therefore arguably impractical to target one food group, but instead far more pragmatic to improve food systems as a whole, albeit a significant task!