Healthy people, healthy planet

Defining a safe operating space for food systems in the Anthropocene

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A  food system revolution is urgently needed, to provide healthy diets for all while preventing irreversible damage to the Earth System.

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A  food system revolution is urgently needed, to provide healthy diets for all while preventing irreversible damage to the Earth System.

A key element of any ecosocialist program must be a global drive to end hunger and malnutrition, combined with a rapid shift to sustainable agriculture. To date, however, we have not carefully considered just what those transformations would involve.

An excellent starting point for discussions of this issue is Food in the Anthropocene,  published last month in the UK medical journal The Lancet. Prepared by an international commission chaired by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Center and Walter Willett of Harvard University’s Departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology, it is described as the first full scientific report that analyses both how diets must change to ensure human health, and how farming must change to protect the Earth System from irreversible damage.

The authors are clearly not socialists, but the information and analysis they provide can, I think, contribute to the development of a socialist food policy.

The following is the Executive Summary, lightly reformatted for on-screen reading.

The EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems
Executive Summary

Food systems have the potential to nurture human health and support environmental sustainability; however, they are currently threatening both. Providing a growing global population with healthy diets from sustainable food systems is an immediate challenge. Although global food production of calories has kept pace with population growth, more than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume low-quality diets that cause micronutrient deficiencies and contribute to a substantial rise in the incidence of diet-related obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than does unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined. Because much of the world’s population is inadequately nourished and many environmental systems and processes are pushed beyond safe boundaries by food production, a global transformation of the food system is urgently needed.

The absence of scientific targets for achieving healthy diets from sustainable food systems has been hindering large-scale and coordinated efforts to transform the global food system. This Commission brings together 19 Commissioners and 18 coauthors from 16 countries in various fields of human health, agriculture, political sciences, and environmental sustainability to develop global scientific targets based on the best evidence available for healthy diets and sustainable food production.

These global targets define a safe operating space for food systems that allow us to assess which diets and food production practices will help ensure that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Agreement are achieved.

We quantitatively describe a universal healthy reference diet to provide a basis for estimating the health and environmental effects of adopting an alternative diet to standard current diets, many of which are high in unhealthy foods. Scientific targets for a healthy reference diet are based on extensive literature on foods, dietary patterns, and health outcomes.

This healthy reference diet largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, includes a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and includes no or a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables. The global average intake of healthy foods is substantially lower than the reference diet intake, whereas overconsumption of unhealthy foods is increasing.

Using several approaches, we found with a high level of certainty that global adoption of the reference dietary pattern would provide major health benefits, including a large reduction in total mortality.

The Commission integrates, with quantification of universal healthy diets, global scientific targets for sustainable food systems, and aims to provide scientific boundaries to reduce environmental degradation caused by food production at all scales. Scientific targets for the safe operating space of food systems were established for six key Earth system processes.

Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change by contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater use, interference with the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and land-system change (and chemical pollution, which is not assessed in this Commission). Food production depends on continued functioning of biophysical systems and processes to regulate and maintain a stable Earth system; therefore, these systems and processes provide a set of globally systemic indicators of sustainable food production.

The Commission concludes that quantitative scientific targets constitute universal and scalable planetary boundaries for the food system. However, the uncertainty range for these food boundaries remains high because of the inherent complexity in Earth system dynamics.

Diets inextricably link human health and environmental sustainability. The scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food systems are integrated into a common framework, the safe operating space for food systems, so that win-win diets (ie, healthy and environmentally sustainable) can be identified. We propose that this framework is universal for all food cultures and production systems in the world, with a high potential of local adaptation and scalability.

Application of this framework to future projections of world development indicates that food systems can provide healthy diets (ie, reference diet) for an estimated global population of about 10 billion people by 2050 and remain within a safe operating space. However, even small increases in consumption of red meat or dairy foods would make this goal difficult or impossible to achieve. Within boundaries of food production, the reference diet can be adapted to make meals that are consistent with food cultures and cuisines of all regions of the world.

Because food systems are a major driver of poor health and environmental degradation, global efforts are urgently needed to collectively transform diets and food production. An integrative framework combined with scientific targets can provide essential support for a sustainable and healthy food transformation. This Commission concludes that global food systems can provide win-win diets to everyone by 2050 and beyond. However, achieving this goal will require rapid adoption of numerous changes and unprecedented global collaboration and commitment: nothing less than a Great Food Transformation.

We focus mainly on environmental sustainability of food production and health consequences of final consumption. However, the food system consists of much more than these factors. A transformation of the global food system should ultimately involve multiple stakeholders, from individual consumers to policy makers and all actors in the food supply chain, working together towards the shared global goal of healthy and sustainable diets for all.

However, humanity has never aimed to change the global food system on the scale envisioned in this Commission; this objective is uncharted policy territory and the problems outlined in this Commission are not easily fixed. Three lessons can be learned from other examples of societal responses to global changes.

First, no single actor or breakthrough is likely to catalyze systems change.

Second, science and evidence-gathering are essential for change.

Third, a full range of policy levers, from soft to hard, will be needed.

Together, these lessons guide the thinking that will be necessary to transform the global food system. In addition, we outline five specific and implementable strategies, which are supported by a strong evidence base. Our modelling and analysis shows their effectiveness for achieving a Great Food Transformation. These strategies are:

(1) Seek international and national commitment to shift towards healthy diets. The scientific targets set by this Commission provide guidance for the necessary shift, which consists of increasing consumption of plant-based foods and substantially reducing consumption of animal source foods. Research has shown that this shift will reduce environmental effects and improve health outcomes. This concerted commitment can be achieved by investment in public health information and sustainability education, and improved coordination between departments of health and environment.

(2) Re-orient agricultural priorities from producing high quantities of food to producing healthy food. Production should focus on a diverse range of nutritious foods from biodiversity-enhancing food production systems rather than increased volume of a few crops, most of which are used for animal production.

(3) Sustainably intensify food production to increase high-quality output. The current global food system is unsustainable and requires an agricultural revolution that is based on sustainable intensification and driven by sustainability and system innovation. This change would entail reducing yield gaps on cropland, radical improvements in the efficiency of fertiliser and water use, recycling phosphorus, redistributing global use of nitrogen and phosphorus, implementing climate mitigation options, including changes in crop and feed management, and enhancing biodiversity within agricultural systems.

(4) Strong and coordinated governance of land and oceans. Such governance includes implementing a zero-expansion policy of new agricultural land into natural ecosystems and species-rich forests, management policies aimed at restoring and re-foresting degraded land, establishing mechanisms of international land-use governance, and adopting a Half Earth strategy for biodiversity conservation to safeguard resilience and productivity in food production. The world’s oceans need to be effectively managed to ensure that fisheries do not negatively affect ecosystems, fish stocks are used responsibly, and global aquaculture production is expanded sustainably given its effect on and linkage to both land and ocean ecosystems.

(5) At least halve food losses and waste, in line with global sustainable development goals. Substantially reducing the amount of food lost and wasted across the food supply chain, from production to consumption, is essential for the global food system to stay within its safe operating space. Technological solutions will need to be applied along the food supply chain and public policies implemented to achieve a 50% reduction in food loss and waste.

An opportunity exists to integrate food systems into international, national, and business policy frameworks aiming for improved human health and environmental sustainability. Establishing clear, scientific targets to guide food system transformation is an important step in realizing this opportunity.


  1. Unhealthy and unsustainably produced food poses a global risk to people and the planet. More than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and morbidity. Moreover, global food production is the largest pressure caused by humans on Earth, threatening local ecosystems and the stability of the Earth system.
  2. Current dietary trends, combined with projected population growth to about 10 billion by 2050, will exacerbate risks to people and planet. The global burden of non-communicable diseases is predicted to worsen and the effects of food production on greenhouse-gas emissions, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, biodiversity loss, and water and land use will reduce the stability of the Earth system.
  3. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is necessary to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, and scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production are needed to guide a Great Food Transformation.
  4. Healthy diets have an appropriate caloric intake and consist of a diversity of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal source foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and small amounts of refined grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars.
  5. Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts, including a greater than 50% reduction in global consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and a greater than 100% increase in consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. However, the changes needed differ greatly by region.
  6. Dietary changes from current diets to healthy diets are likely to substantially benefit human health, averting about 10.8–11.6 million deaths per year, a reduction of 19,0–23.6%.
  7. With food production causing major global environmental risks, sustainable food production needs to operate within the safe operating space for food systems at all scales on Earth. Therefore, sustainable food production for about 10 billion people should use no additional land, safeguard existing biodiversity, reduce consumptive water use and manage water responsibly, substantially reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, produce zero carbon dioxide emissions, and cause no further increase in methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
  8. Transformation to sustainable food production by 2050 will require at least a 75% reduction of yield gaps, global redistribution of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer use, recycling of phosphorus, radical improvements in efficiency of fertilizer and water use, rapid implementation of agricultural mitigation options to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, adoption of land management practices that shift agriculture from a carbon source to sink, and a fundamental shift in production priorities.
  9. The scientific targets for healthy diets from sustainable food systems are intertwined with all UN Sustainable Development Goals. For example, achieving these targets will depend on providing high-quality primary health care that integrates family planning and education on healthy diets. These targets and the Sustainable Development Goals on freshwater, climate, land, oceans, and biodiversity will be achieved through strong commitment to global partnerships and actions.
  10. Achieving healthy diets from sustainable food systems for everyone will require substantial shifts towards healthy dietary patterns, large reductions in food losses and waste, and major improvements in food production practices. This universal goal for all humans is within reach but will require adoption of scientific targets by all sectors to stimulate a range of actions from individuals and organisations working in all sectors and at all scales.



  • Replying to AH:

    1. Climate & Capitalism did not “endorse” the EAT-Lancet report or its dietary guidelines. We said it is “an excellent starting point for discussions,” and we stand by that.

    2. You disagree with the report. That’s your right. But the report supports its conclusions by extensive reference to peer-reviewed scientific studies. You offer no evidence at all, just assertions. That does not inspire confidence!

    3. I don’t know were you got your list of “corporate sponsors of the Lancet report,” but not one of the companies you name is even mentioned in the report or the supporting material! The report was ENTIRELY funded by Wellcome Trust, which, the authors say, “had no role in writing the report.” If you have evidence to the contrary, produce it.

    4. The idea that the ruling class wants everyone to go vegetarian is just plain silly.

    • I was mistaken about those companies being sponsors of the report. They are associated with EAT through their FReSH initiative.

      EAT itself was founded by billionaire vegan advocate Gunhild Stordalen. 31 of the 37 scientists involved in the report have established records of promoting vegan/vegetarian or anti-meat diets.

      The report’s lead on diet and health is Harvard’s Walter Willett, who has many potential conflicts of interest.

      Here are some studies contradicting the report’s vilification of animal products

      And here’s a good overview of the problems with the report, with links

      Of course its not the case that the entire ruling class wants to impose a vegetarian or low-meat diet on the masses. Ruling class opinion is never uniform. But this is the general view of that section of the ruling class that acknowledges the reality of climate change and aims to do something about it. It’s certainly the agenda of the Gates Foundation, “progessive” and centrist politicians like the Clinton’s and Obama’s, many celebrities, CEO’s (John Mackey), institutions (Harvard), and NGO’s. Participants at EAT’s annual Stockholm Food Forum have included Prince Charles, Bill Clinton, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, and World Bank CEO Dr. Kristalina Georgieva, to name just a few.

      • Thank you for your reply. At least now we can see where you get your information.

        The sources you cite are connected, directly or indirectly, with the “Nutrition Coalition,” an organization set up in 2015 by billionaire former hedge fund manager John Arnold, to lobby for against the US government’s proposed nutrition guidelines. It was and is part of what Quartz magazine called “The US meat industry’s wildly successful, 40-year crusade to keep its hold on the American diet.”

        Most of the arguments made in the papers you cite were set out at length in a paper written by the Nutrition Coalition’s director, journalist Nina Teicholz. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called it “a hodge-podge of fact and fiction and will only confuse a confused public even more.” Noted nutrition expert Marion Nestle provided a link to that response and many others, in this article:

        I am not vegan or vegetarian. I don’t think giving up meat will save the world. But the overwhelming view of nutrition experts is that people in the global north eat far too much meat, and environmental scientists are clear that industrial livestock production is a major source of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. We will not get answers to the food production and consumption crisis from food industry lobbyists.

        • Well, the studies linked in the two-pager are independent and should stand, or fall, on their own. I was not aware of any association between Georgia Ede, who authored the Psychology Today piece, and the Nutrition Coalition, but I could be wrong. In any case, I think her article contains a lot of valuable information regarding the flaws in the EAT-Lancet report, and encourage people to read it. There is actually a fair amount of dissent among nutrition experts about the health effects of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. Gary Taubes, for one, has written extensively on this. I’m certainly no expert, and rely on sites like climate and capitalism, which I visit regularly, for valuable info on environmental and food issues. I’m aware this site doesn’t advocate mandatory vegetarianism. Indeed I’ve read articles here arguing against that position. I just felt compelled to comment on this post because its a subject I’m interested in and think important. I’ll finish with a link to this article on the history of the demonization of saturated fat

  • There’s no question that we need to change to more sustainable organic and agro-ecological food production methods. But the dietary guidelines in this report are very bad. Heart disease rates have soared since we started replacing animal fats with vegetable oils. Many working class people are rediscovering the health benefits of things like butter and bone broth. But the ruling class would rather we all subsist on a meager ‘healthy’ diet of gmo grains legumes and canola oil. Considering the corporate sponsors of the Lancet report (Cargill, Kellogs, Nestle, PepsiCo, etc.) its no surprise they promote this death diet. It is unfortunate, though, to see it endorsed here.