Save the world: Why the planetary health diet won’t work

May 27, 2019 7:03 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Back in January, we took a look at the planetary health diet (see our blog Following the planetary health diet?). It’s a really interesting idea, devised by a group of 37 scientists from round the world. Considering issues of climate change, population trends, food production and health, the scientists came up with ‘a complete analysis and overhaul of how the world should be eating’ (New Statesman). If we all follow the planetary health diet, say the scientists, the environmental catastrophes threatening the world can be averted. You can read their conclusions here.

Can the planetary health diet actually work?

Like many people, we’re enthusiastic about this as a general idea. Naturally Good Food has, in fact, been advocating a similar way of eating for years! With an emphasis on nuts, fruit, vegetables, pulses and whole grains, it seems to us a diet that really could bring the widest range of health benefits. And we’ve no doubt that, if followed correctly by everyone in the world, the scientists would be proved right in their environmental calculations too.

But.

There is rather a big but in all of this.

Theory is one thing and practice is quite another. Like many people, we can’t help having some fairly significant doubts about whether this diet is at all viable.

Can it possibly work?

The scientists themselves are open about the potential difficulties:

‘Humanity has never aimed to change the global food system on the scale envisioned. Achieving this goal will require rapid adoption of numerous changes and unprecedented global collaboration and commitment.’

This is a diet that considers the world as a whole. It asks everyone, wherever they live, to follow the same nutritional guidelines. If you live in an area replete with fish or game, you must still refrain from eating more of it than is allowed under the guidelines. If you live in a place where starchy crops grow (but not much else), you have to hold back on those, even as they flourish all around you. Under this diet, people in parts of Asia must stop eating so much fish (although fish surrounds them in abundance); people in parts of Africa must stop relying on cassava and yams (a hard message to swallow in a region without much food security); and people in the USA must stop eating so many burgers and steaks (even as their president buys in burgers by the lorryload for big events). To balance things out, all of these places will have to start to exchange food between themselves, sending foodstuffs that grow in one region to another. ‘Unprecedented global collaboration’ is how the scientists put it – and that’s an entirely accurate description. This diet would require trade on an unprecedented scale, co-operation on an unparalleled level, a huge number of air-miles, a massive political push to change eating habits within individual countries, and the placing of a greater global good over the day-to-day habits and needs of each country’s local electorate. We’re a long, long way away from this. Embroiled as so many countries are in internal squabbling and external conflicts, a yam-fish swap on a massive scale isn’t likely to be on the cards any time soon.

Is it even a good idea?

There are plenty of other dissenting voices. Farmers’ organisations have been quick to point out that the diet makes little sense in certain parts of the world. In the UK, for instance, the climate and topography of most of Wales (and a lot of Scotland) means that only livestock farming is viable in these areas. As this article explains, in Wales, as in so many other places, the current system of food production is perfectly tailored to the local environment and climate, with animals forming part of a sustainable agricultural system, on which arable farming equally depends.

Many people argue that a sustainable diet should thus be based on what is sustainable in your immediate area (or at the very most, on your own continent). This cuts down on food miles, allows for food security within your own community and can be perfectly adapted to your local environment and climate.

In addition, some nutritionists have expressed concern about the nutritional quality of the diet: http://www.zoeharcombe.com/2019/01/the-eat-lancet-diet-is-nutritionally-deficient/. Some have, in addition, wondered about people on specialised diets, or those working in hard physical conditions (rather than sitting around a global conference table).

Other writers have pointed out that the diet – at least until the unprecedented collaboration begins – would require a high income and an advanced level of skills in the kitchen. And it would take a major change in mindset, as well as in trade. Here’s the New Statesman again:

‘You’re attempting to unravel years and years of recipes, stories, and histories that food embodies.’

Are there any better ideas?

The publication of this diet has sparked a heated discussion, in the course of which many alternative remedies for the food-environment imbalance have been suggested. The most popular of these is reducing population growth worldwide, rather than attempting to change food consumption to match projected higher levels of population. Giving women worldwide greater access to education and contraception would be a well-established way of achieving this.

Looking specifically at diet, people have also wondered why the scientists didn’t think about including ‘cultured meat’ (meat grown in laboratories), which would see a massive reduction in greenhouse gases, land and energy use associated with meat. Or, of course, there’s the growing trend towards eating insects….

Is the diet worth trying?

From a health point of view, most agree that this diet is worth a go. It’s based on wholefoods – proper, nutritious foodstuffs, replete with vitamins and minerals – and is balanced and versatile. Environmentally, however, it’s a slightly different story. It might be a step in the right direction, but it’s almost certainly just one very small step along a very long path. We’re optimists at NGF: we do believe that we will get the world’s diet right – in the end. Even if we’re not making progress along that path yet, we’re cheered by the fact that we’re at least starting to think about what we should do.

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This post was written by Yzanne

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