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According to a landmark study just published, the way humanity produces and eats food must change radically to avoid millions of deaths and "catastrophic" damage on the planet.
The key to achieving both goals is a dramatic change in the global diet, we should consume about half the sugar and red meat, and twice the vegetables, fruits and nuts, concluded a consortium of 36 researchers in the medical journal The Lancet.
"We are in a catastrophic situation," study co-author Professor Tim Lang of the University of London and policy leader of the EAT-Lancet Commission that compiled the 50-page study told French news agency AFP.
Today, nearly a billion people are hungry and another two billion are eating too many wrong foods, leading to epidemics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Unhealthy diets account for up to 11 million preventable premature deaths each year, according to the most recent report from Global Disease Burden.
At the same time, the global food system is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the biggest driver of biodiversity loss, and the leading cause of deadly algal blooms along coasts and inland waterways.
Agriculture, which has transformed almost half of the planet's land area, also consumes about 70 percent of the world's freshwater supply.
"To have any chance of feeding 10 billion people by 2050 within planetary limits," the limits of the Earth's ability to absorb human activity, "we must adopt a healthy diet, reduce food waste, and invest into technologies that reduce environmental impacts, ”said co-author Professor Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Impact Research.
"It is feasible, but nothing less than a global agricultural revolution will be required," he told AFP.
The cornerstone of the "great food transformation" called for in the study is a human diet of approximately 2,500 calories per day.
"We are not saying that everyone has to eat the same way," Professor Lang said by phone.
"But generally speaking, especially in the rich world, it means a reduction in meat and dairy products, and a significant increase in the consumption of plants."
For most rich nations, and many other emerging nations such as China and Brazil, this would represent a drastic reduction of five to ten times.
Not only do livestock produce massive amounts of methane that warms the planet, but vast tracts of carbon-absorbing forests are cut down, mainly in Brazil, every year to make room for them.
"In terms of climate, we know that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel," said Professor Rockstrom. "On the food side, the equivalent is grain-fed beef."
It takes at least five kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat, and once the cutlet or lamb chop is on the plate, about 30 percent will end up in the trash bin.
Dairy products are also limited to about 250g of whole milk, or its equivalent in cheese or yogurt, a day, and just one or two eggs a week.
At the same time, the diet requires an increase of more than 100% in legumes such as peas and lentils, along with vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
Grains are considered less healthy sources of nutrients.
"We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources," said The Lancet editor-in-chief Dr. Richard Horton.
"For the first time in 200,000 years of human history, we are very out of sync with the planet and nature."
The report generated strong reactions from the dairy and livestock industry, and some experts.
"It is extreme to create maximum care, but we must be more responsible when making serious dietary recommendations," said Alexander Anton, secretary general of the European Dairy Association, noting that dairy products are "packed" with nutrients and vitamins.
Christopher Snowdon of the London Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) said the report "reveals the full agenda of the activists."
"We expected these attacks," said Professor Lang.
"But the same food companies that reject these findings realize that they may not have a future if they don't adapt," he said.
"The question is: do we expect one to happen, or do we start planning now?"
Some multinationals responded positively, albeit cautiously, to the study.
"We need governments to help accelerate change by aligning national dietary guidelines with healthy and sustainable requirements, and by repurposing agricultural subsidies," the World Business Council for Sustainable Development said in a statement.
By David twomey
Original article (in English)