‘Healthy reference diet’ - what you need to know

| 30th January 2019
Crops
The recent EAT-Lancet report has garnered mixed responses so far but here are the five things you need to know about the 'healthy reference diet'.

In reframing ‘sustainable intensification’ in such terms, the report provides an important correction to those who advocate a ‘business as usual’ brand to feed the world.

Can we feed 10 billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries? The recent EAT Lancet report attempts to answer that question - proposing a ‘healthy reference diet’ that, the report suggests, works with and not against the planet.

It has understandably attracted some mixed responses – this is a complex question and one report can’t possibly have all the answers. But EAT-Lancet has made an important contribution to the conversation.

Now that the dust has settled, and people have shared their initial reactions, it’s time to take a closer look at the detail. Here are five things you need to know about the report and about the ‘healthy reference diet’.

1. ‘Sustainable intensification’

The EAT-Lancet report calls for “strategies to refocus agriculture from producing high volumes of crops to producing varied nutrient-rich crops” and makes strong recommendations for agro-ecological farming systems like organic.

It suggests that ‘sustainable intensification’ based on “nutrient cycling” on the farm can contribute towards “large increases in carbon sequestration in agricultural soils and above ground.”

This is hugely welcome, for in reframing ‘sustainable intensification’ in such terms, the report provides an important correction to those who advocate a ‘business as usual’ brand to feed the world.

A ‘business as usual’ brand of ‘sustainable intensification’ fails to meet the needs of healthier diets, and would perpetuate intensively farmed monocultures which are dependent on high levels of chemical input.

It is therefore incompatible with eliminating the use of fossil fuels, restoring soils and biodiversity, and dramatically reducing nitrogen pollution, as this report demands.

2. Less meat

The recommendations on meat consumption have caused a stir, though the proposed ‘healthy reference diet’ does allow for limited quantities of meat, dairy and eggs.

The Soil Association supports a move to “less but better” meat, based on animals reared extensively on grass and ‘leftovers’ where possible.

The Commission recognises that such a ‘livestock on leftovers’ approach could have environmental benefits. It dedicates its appendix to showing how this would produce a similar total volume of milk/meat. However,  the commission gives greater priority to poultry over beef and lamb, for health reasons.

Serious questions need to be asked as to whether poultry should be prioritised over red meat here in the UK, where livestock can play an integral role in sustainable farming systems, and whether the evidence on red meat and health is as strong as the report suggests.

However, the direction of travel - ‘less but better’ meat - is the right one.

3. Sustainable diets

Many of the priorities identified in the report are things the Soil Association has been advocating for years.

This includes a shift from the focus on producing high quantities of food to producing healthy food; halving food losses and waste; governments helping people eat a healthier diet by creating healthier food environments and; making sure systems are in place for wise management of land and seas

The question now is how to go about normalising more sustainable diets here in the UK. Public procurement has an important role to play.

The Soil Association’s Food for Life programme – which has made menus more sustainable in over 10,000 schools - will be engaging with public health nutritionists as well as with school leaders, parents and caterers to understand to what extent a version of this ‘healthy reference diet’ can or should be normalised in schools.

If nut consumption needs to double, should we be finding ways to bring nuts back into schools, or are the risks to allergy sufferers too great to overcome?

Should the government be setting more ambitious targets for ‘less and better’ meat in public settings, including a mandatory meat free day in schools each week?

4. Nitrogen 

Other recommendations in the report are less welcome, including the conclusion that using less synthetic fertiliser in developed countries to reduce pollution will allow for significantly increased use in developing countries to help increase yields there.

This is despite acknowledging that artificial nitrogen fertiliser is linked to significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and helps explain the assertion that food production might contribute half of all GHG emissions in 2050.

A more realistic pathway to improving yields in developing counties would be using approaches that build soil fertility and use legumes to fix nitrogen naturally – which would also help reduce GHG.

5. Global recommendations need to be tailored to local realities

There are many more questions that need to be answered. We would like to see more research looking at the most effective way to produce meat from low input forage and how to minimise methane emissions while maximising the important contribution grasslands make to carbon storage.

Could agroforestry in grassland provide opportunities to produce more nuts and fruit in conjunction with dairy? How do we lower the global nitrogen inputs to benefit local air and water while adopting other ways to build fertility?

What is the role for grazing in maintaining Europe’s precious permanent grasslands, and what are the trade-offs for health and greenhouse gases? If we are to adopt some of the dietary recommendations in the report, how are we going to produce the nuts and pulses sustainably?

There is an inherent problem in looking at the planetary environmental limits for healthy food production without balancing this with a field and farm level look at the best available options.

What we now need is a more dynamic global model that would enable different dietary scenarios to be tested for their impacts on farming, health and the environment, and for different farming options to be tested for their health and environmental impacts.

In conclusion…

The EAT-Lancet report has made an important contribution to the conversation.

But for farmers, who need to plan long ahead, there are many uncertainties and it is not surprising that this radical report has generated some apprehensive responses.

The priority now must be moving from global recommendations to local realities – we must define what healthy and sustainable farming and diets mean here in the UK, and press ahead with the urgent task of making such farming and diets the norm.

Dietary habits are already changing, and farmers and citizens will need all the help available to respond to these huge challenges. 

This author 

Joanna Lewis is policy and strategy director at the Soil Association and chair of the Food Ethics Council. She can be found tweeting at @JoLewisSA.

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