EAT-Lancet’s impact on food research and public discourse

While everyone requires a healthy diet, food production, and supply methods have often caused heavy damage to our planet. Sustainable development thus includes better ways to ensure that the global community is fed nutritious food without destroying the environment.

The EAT-Lancet Commission was set up in 2019 to define a reference diet to explain how this could be done.

A recent study in The Lancet Global Health looked at the initial impact of the Commission’s results on subsequent research and policy in this field.

Study: How the EAT–Lancet Commission on food in the Anthropocene influenced discourse and research on food systems: a systematic review covering the first 2 years post-publication. Image Credit: Kmpzzz/Shutterstock.comStudy: How the EAT–Lancet Commission on food in the Anthropocene influenced discourse and research on food systems: a systematic review covering the first 2 years post-publication. Image Credit: Kmpzzz/Shutterstock.com

Introduction

About one in ten people worldwide lack adequate nutrition, and malnutrition causes one in five deaths directly or indirectly. Meanwhile, the world is experiencing an obesity epidemic.

Human food consumption is not profitable for human or environmental health. Today’s Food production methods cause 25% of carbon emissions and deforestation in the interest of increased field acreage. Thus, a revamping of food systems is an urgent need.

The various environmental areas in the Commission’s scope included climate change, loss of biodiversity, freshwater use, disruption of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and altered land systems.

The Commission found it possible to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 via dietary changes. Notably, consuming foods like starchy vegetables and red meat needed to be cut drastically by half, while nuts, legumes, and whole grains were to be doubled.

The Commission’s work unquestionably focused on the urgency of the required change in food systems and a common and scientific reference diet that could weld together the twin aims of healthy nutrition and sustainable food systems.

It failed to give equal importance to social equity and diversity across global cultures. This will necessitate further research to close these gaps.

The current study explores how the Commission affected current food research and identifies research gaps.

What did the study show?

The study included 192 articles; half were based on food consumption and ~40% on various steps by which food reached the consumer. Most were from wealthy countries, with only 5% being from low-income countries.

Most articles citing the Commission’s findings were debates or critiques but with an overall positive sentiment regardless of the form of the article.

The researchers found that the EAT-Lancet Commission impacted study methods and results and the discussion of food systems across multiple scientific streams. These included the life sciences, social sciences, and medical sciences. Most scientists regarded its work in a positive light.

The major benefits of this work were the ability to shape food policies, influence public health decisions, and educate the public on food systems and healthy, environment-friendly dietary choices.

The greatest number focused on the policy impact of these findings regarding the ability to lay out a healthy and sustainable pattern of food consumption.

A second key area in regard to the policy aspect was the recognition that policy targets underpinned by science would be the most effective at changing food systems. Researchers also commended the goal of the Commission.

Conversely, the Commission results were felt to ignore equally important aspects of food choices like cultural acceptability, affordability, accessibility, and thus the feasibility of the reference diet in different cultures and socioeconomic strata.

There was an absence of consensus about the effect of reductions in animal-source foods and substitutions on specific populations.”

Micronutrient deficiencies were also potentially likely to arise.

Moreover, by relating them only to carbon emissions, it took an overly narrow view of the environmental costs of various dietary schemes and food systems. Water use and nutrient leaching were overlooked in determining the reference diet, for instance. Including water use would make it almost impossible to find a sustainable diet.

Also, it did not consider the damage that could be caused to farmers and others dependent on food production processes if major shifts occur in the food systems.

Furthermore, the methods used were the subject of positive and negative comments, mostly supported by good evidence. Some flaws pointed out included the possible use of biased or poor-quality data to determine the effects of diets on health, poorly reproducible data, and the lack of important data leading to incorrect models.   

Multiple articles showed comparisons between the EAT-Lancet reference diet and current diets or evaluated the potential impacts of a change in diet or food production regarding environmental gains.

Some dealt with possible methods to switch to plant-based diets, including tempting cookery, while others explored existing consumer preferences.

A fundamental recognition was notable regarding the absence of a broadly generalizable framework governing a coordinated global initiative to shift dietary preference. Stakeholders in such an effort include governments, industry, regulatory bodies, international agencies, and policymaking bodies.

Some researchers laid the groundwork for future policies and research in this area. For instance, more work is needed to understand how food processing, the social and economic factors that shape regional dietary cultures and ideas of health, and the political systems in force that influence food choices.

Moreover, scientists must define how food production and consumption practices may be better refined for optimal ecological impact.

What are the implications?

Despite limitations in EAT–Lancet’s method, scope, and implementation feasibility, the academic community supported these recommendations.”

Almost a third of the articles published soon after the Commission report adhered to its recommendations for interdisciplinary studies.

However, most explored the single area of emissions, disregarding other important ecological impacts such as biodiversity and the use of soil and water.

Evidence-based interventions are necessary in this field. These include, for example, designing a better reference diet or optimizing food production methods using operations research to reconcile environmental protection and health demands.

Importantly, such interventions can be framed only on the evidence provided by rigorous studies, but such research is notably lacking so far.

Both production and consumption of food must be targeted to produce a significant shift in dietary patterns worldwide. Most research to date focuses on consumption rather than production.

Our research and policy agenda should not only improve the methods and outcomes of future EAT–Lancet Commission reports, but also serve to guide healthy and sustainable food systems research globally.”

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