Is the global food system a threat to the health of the planet?
Unhealthy diets – together with lack of physical activity – are leading global risks to health. It is becoming increasingly clears that the ways in which we produce and process the food we eat (i.e. from farm to fork), and the amounts wasted or lost, have major impacts on human health and environmental sustainability, threatening both people and planet Earth. Excessive consumption of saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sugar and salt increase the risk of overweight and obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and several types of cancer – the main cause of illness and disability in Malta and across the developed world.
What does that have to do with me?
Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability. Humanity faces the immense challenge of providing more than 7 billion humans with healthy diets from sustainable food systems (i.e. planetary health diets). From a human health perspective, the latest research suggests that unhealthy diets now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined. At the same time, global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience – it constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation in excess of planetary boundaries (i.e. outside the capacity of our planet to renew over time). Taken together, the outcome is dire. A radical transformation of the global food system and human diets is urgently needed.
Right. Count me in. How can we shift towards a healthy and sustainable diet?
Most of the food we buy in supermarkets and grocery stores are products of an unsustainable food system. On the other hand, a diet rich in unprocessed, plant-based foods and fewer animal source foods is healthy, sustainable, and good for both people and the environment. It’s not going to be easy. The transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts worldwide. Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%.
It is not a question of all or nothing, but rather a case of small changes taken up by entire populations to achieve a large and positive impact. A ‘planetary health’ plate should consist by volume of approximately half a plate of vegetables and fruits; the other half should consist of primarily whole grains, plant protein sources, unsaturated plant oils, and very modest amounts of animal protein, preferably from less energy-intensive livestock such as chicken and pork.
That sounds familiar…
It should. The Mediterranean Diet promoted in Malta has been conclusively shown to have cardioprotective benefits, and comprises most of the key planetary health diet features. These include:
1. the use of seasonal, fresh and minimally processed foods
2. an abundance of vegetables and fruit (mostly fresh and seasonal), including for snacking; herbs and spices, legumes, cereals and nuts;
3. regular but moderate use of olive oil;
4. moderate amounts of fish and seafood;
5. moderate consumption of eggs and dairy products (mostly plain yoghurt without added sugars or cheese);
6. small amounts of meat;
7. appropriate food portion sizes;
8. home cooking and sitting around the table, preparing and sharing food in company of family and friends;
9. a moderate to vigorous level of physical activity; and
10. adequate rest and sleep as part of a balanced lifestyle
Willett, W. et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems (Executive summary). Lancet 393, 447–492 (2019).