Changing Diets to Save the World – “The World’s Most Important Lecture”

“Civilisation is in crisis. We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. If we can eat in a way that works for our planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance will be restored.”
– Richard Horton and Tamara Lucas, editors at the Lancet

Editor’s Note: It was billed as ‘The World’s Most Important Lecture’. The launch of the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets for Sustainable Food Systems, on January 17, 2019.

Beef and diary farmers worldwide, including in Ireland, were, understandably, outraged and clearly threatened by the Commission’s recommendations that addressed the interconnections between food, health, global warming, sustainability and feeding the world’s population, expected to reach 10 billion by 2050.

Speaking at the AGM of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) on January 29, 2019, IFA President, Joe Healy, had some tough and intemperate things to say in reference to the Lancet report, as well as criticizing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar over recent comments about his own personal choice of reducing meat consumption. 

Beef or Bygones? Photo: (c) Don Mullan

“Farmers in Ireland are being told that we should give up producing meat,” Mr. Healy stated, “that we should give up producing milk and instead, produce fruit and nuts. And I am certain that in years to come people will be glad Ireland stayed doing what we are good at, because our food will be needed.

“We won’t be driven off the land by keyboard warriors, quacks or lifestyle gurus. We are proud to be farmers and we are here to stay.”

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the term ‘quack’ in reference to humans means: “disapproving a person who dishonestly pretends to have medical skills or knowledge.” That certainly cannot be applied to An Taoiseach Varadkar who is a medically trained doctor, nor to the 20 eminent scientists who contributed to the EAT-Lancet report. 

Healy was reacting to the Commission’s report which recommended that meat consumption in western countries, such as Ireland, may need to drop by 90 per cent to avert a climate catastrophe and reverse the current obesity epidemic.

Given that Irish agricultural policy has been built on expanding and developing our beef and diary industry, primarily for export, one can understand why the President of the IFA was on the defensive. However, Climate Breakdown and the impact of human behavior on the environment are now inextricably linked and if the Earth is to be sustainable, humanity as a whole faces tough decisions. We either change our ways, which includes our relationship with food and food production, most especially beef, or we ignore the crisis and/or delay taking the necessary actions, by which time it will likely be too late.   

The research by 20 influential food scientists, published in the Lancet Medical Journal, suggests the global food system is unsustainable and driving the planet towards environmental destruction while simultaneously leaving billions of people either underfed or overweight.

Their report calls for a radical reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy in favour of plant-based alternatives.

According to the Irish Times, ‘Its “healthy, sustainable reference diet” would involve a complete restructuring of the average Irish person’s diet with beef and lamb consumption reduced by 90 per cent to just 7g a day, which is equivalent to roughly half a meatball.
People would also be limited to 7g of pork a day, equivalent to a single cocktail sausage, and just 29g of chicken or one and a half chicken nuggets.’

‘Dairy consumption would also be curtailed to just one glass of milk a day (250ml) or less if you consume cheese or butter.

‘To get the required daily intake of calories, people would be expected to eat almost 18 times as much dry beans, soy and nuts.’

According to the report, the global food system accounts for a third of all carbon emissions, which is more than all emissions from transport, heating and lighting.

“Unhealthy and unsustainably produced food poses a global risk to people and the planet,” the scientists argue. “More than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and morbidity.”

The study warned that global food production was exerting the greatest pressure on the Earth’s ecology and stability.

The report argues that the transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems was necessary to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate accord.

Richard Horton and Tamara Lucas, editors at the Lancet, summarized the challenges and the choices facing humanity as follows:

“Civilisation is in crisis. We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. If we can eat in a way that works for our planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance will be restored.”

To listen to listen to ‘The World’s Most Important Lecture’ please click here. 

To get access to the EAT-Lancet Commission Report please click here.