Many New Zealand health professionals are applauding a landmark report that outlines how to achieve healthy and sustainable eating patterns for a future global population of 10 billion people.
The report was produced by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health – a partnership between a global non-profit group and one of the world’s leading medical journals. It is the product of three years of work by 37 international experts working across a range of scientific disciplines.
“The current global food system is known to have harmful effects on both human and planetary health,” says Dr Rhys Jones, Co-convenor of OraTaiao: The NZ Climate and Health Council.
“Unhealthy diets are a major contributor to rapidly increasing rates of non-communicable-diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancers. At the same time, global food production is threatening local ecosystems and pushing the limits of the Earth’s natural systems.”
The Commission recognises that it will be impossible to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Climate Agreement without “a radical transformation of the global food system.”
It outlines a planetary health diet, which recommends intake levels of various food groups that can be adapted to local geography, traditions and personal preferences.
For countries like New Zealand, this will entail substantial dietary shifts. It will require a significant reduction in consumption of red meat and other animal products, and a corresponding increase in consumption of whole plant-based foods such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
In order to achieve this, the Commission calls for multi-sector, multi-level action to encourage a shift to healthy diets, halve our waste and food losses and transform food production systems.
“The report’s conclusions are extremely relevant for New Zealand, where just under half of greenhouse gas emissions stem from agriculture,” says Dr Jones. “In addition, current farming practices are negatively impacting both our freshwater quality and biodiversity.”
“In this context it is critical that the government’s proposed Zero Carbon Bill is inclusive of all greenhouse gases, including those derived from animal agriculture.”
“We call for a whole-of-government approach to urgently transform our food systems and support the transition to a planetary health diet. Healthy and sustainable diets are a win-win for people and the planet,” says Dr Jones.
Beef + Lamb New Zealand has also welcomed the report although has outlined some concerns.
Chief Insight Officer, Jeremy Baker says New Zealand is already adopting many of the strategies recommended by the report’s authors including committing to healthy diet goals, reorienting agricultural priorities to producing high quality healthy food in a sustainable way and supporting biodiversity.
“It is also important to remember EAT-Lancet is making many of its recommendations based on farming systems not commonly used in New Zealand such as grain-fed livestock production when in fact we are a world leader in producing grass-fed red meat.”
However, Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Head of Nutrition, Fiona Greig, a registered nutritionist, has some concerns.
“We support a range of healthy dietary patterns with and without meat, however I have concerns that the suggested reduction could have implications for vulnerable groups especially young women who may already be suffering from nutrient deficiencies.”
“Advocating a plant-based diet is not new and is something Beef + Lamb New Zealand has been advising for over two decades. Our advice has always been to ensure when eating red meat, that three-quarters of your plate is made up of plant-based foods.”
Meanwhile, Baker says New Zealand’s sheep and beef sector is committed to continuing the improvements it has made over the past three decades.
“Sheep numbers have reduced by half since 1990 while we have maintained similar levels of production and doubled the value of our exports. We’ve also reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent over the same period.
“Our farmers are helping to preserve unique flora and fauna, with some 2.8 million hectares of native vegetation. This includes 1.4 million hectares of native forest, on sheep and beef farms, almost a quarter of the country’s total – contributing to sequestering or removing carbon from the atmosphere.
“However, we know the job is not done. The sector will continue to implement our environmental strategy, which is to be carbon neutral by 2050, support thriving biodiversity, ensure clean water that New Zealanders can gather food from and swim in, and foster healthy, productive soils.”
“The report also backs matching food production to land capability, which means that New Zealand’s expertise in producing sustainable, lean grass-fed red meat gives us a competitive advantage.
“New Zealand can’t and isn’t aiming to feed the world with our farming, as we can only feed around 40 million people. But we can definitely own and win in that premium space.”
Writing in the Spinoff, food system expert and founder of spira.nz Emily King points out that the EAT-Lancet report focuses heavily on animal, fish, and produce production, at which New Zealand excels.
“For the most part, our farming practices are not the same as those mentioned in the report, but they still come under criticism elsewhere for environmental impacts on soil and waterways.
“Brand New Zealand has a fantastic opportunity to get this right and grow food authentically in a way that is environmentally sound and within our planetary boundaries.”
King says we need to break down the silos of how we think about these issues.
“Stepping into corners and being #yes2meat or #vegan and flinging stuff at each other across Twitter does nothing to help – it polarises the issue. In order for us to improve our food system for the health of ourselves, and our planet, we need to all work together to make changes, regardless of our food eating preferences.”