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21 January 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 4:21pm

Why a planetary health diet probably won’t save the world

New dietary advice follows an old formula: place the onus for climate change on individuals’ behaviour.

By Harry Harris

That we seem to be approaching something of an environmental collapse probably isn’t a surprise to anyone at this stage in the game, but still, attempts to rectify this feel incremental. Micro-charges for using plastic bags; a Cafe Nero discount if you use a KeepCup; those little compost bins you keep on top of your kitchen counter. Manageable but, if we’re being honest, negligible.

However, with the newly devised “planetary health diet”, scientists suggest we can become the masters of our own destiny, and save the world, all at the same time.

The diet is laid out in a report entitled “Food in the Anthropocene”. It was commissioned by medical journal the Lancet and the EAT forum, which describes itself as a “global, non-profit start-up dedicated to transforming our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption and novel partnerships”.

Rather than a diet in the “no carbs before six, and fruit is a perfectly acceptable dessert” sense of the word, this is more a complete analysis and overhaul of how the world should be eating. The report argues that one half of each plate should be “half a plate of vegetable and fruits,” while the other should be “primarily whole grains, plant protein sources, unsaturated plant oils, and (optionally) modest amounts of animal sources of protein”.

In short, it suggests we should eat less red meat and sugar, more fruit and vegetables, and much, much more nuts, seeds and pulses. The summary of the report includes a series of 12 photographs of example meals. Eight have three to four different elements; the other four are a soba noodle salad, rice salad, pasta salad, and vegetable broth.

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Jamie’s 15-minute meals this ain’t, and 30-minute meals is probably pushing it too. In fact, there are few “traditional British” dishes that would fit the recommendations: you could probably make a case for the Ploughman’s Lunch (brown bread, vegetables, fruit, some cheese, a small amount of meat), but elsewhere our culinary history is far too tied to meat-and-two-veg.

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North America is the other continent whose meat intake would need to be reduced considerably, although a diet based on foods indigenous to North America (nuts, fruits, beans, wild game) might be a good place to start. The proposed diet also has some similarities to the traditional Mediterranean one, and the Japanese Okinawa diet, so it’s not entirely been plucked from thin air: there is some sort of a cultural precedent to it.

What’s strange, then, is that the report doesn’t really acknowledge food as a cultural thing. It’s all well and good telling the world to change its diet – and to be honest, the top-line of what’s being said is really just “eat less meat” – but still, you’re attempting to unravel years and years of recipes, stories, and histories that food embodies. The report is very keen to stress how it’s not a restrictive diet, that there are thousands of combinations of meals you could make; but “eat 50 per cent less meat” is the real headline.

The rise of “cultured meat” – meat grown in a lab – goes some way to addressing this need to eat less meat while allowing folks to basically carry on as normal, and a study carried out way back in 2011 by the universities of Amsterdam and Oxford estimated that cultured meat could be produced with 96 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45 per cent less energy, 99 per cent lower land use, and 96 per cent lower water use than farmed meat; so it’s perhaps surprising that it’s not mentioned in the report.

There has also been a lot of research on the environmental benefits of eating insects, including but not limited to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, better feed conversion efficiency, and water savings. And if you’re now thinking “ugh, insects, gross” I would suggest you consider what difference there is between eating insects and, say, eating molluscs, like shellfish and snails.

That these things aren’t mentioned seems to point to the dual messaging: its focus seems to be half on minimising environmental damage, half on improving public health. Commenting on the report, Tamara Lucas and Richard Horton of The Lancet ask the question, “How is it that we’ve evolved to eat so unhealthily, both for our bodies and for the planet?” before noting that “unhealthy diets account for up to 11 million avoidable premature deaths per year”. In the report itself, the first key message reads “more than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and morbidity.” The tone is severe – but this is a different issue to environmental collapse.

And it’s one that’s worth scrutiny. The report makes a problematic blanket claim that red meat is “unhealthy” – yet the British Heart Foundation states that red meat is a good source of protein and iron, and points out that the main “unhealthy” thing about red meat is how much saturated fat it could contain.

In addition, Dr Zoe Harcombe – a researcher in the field of public health, albeit one who has her own diet book and so may have a vested interest in the planetary health diet not being adopted – has broken down the report’s recommendations, and concluded that it would be nutritionally deficient, providing only 55 per cent of our required calcium, 22 per cent of our required sodium, and 88 per cent of our required iron, most of which is in a form that’s more difficult for our bodies to absorb.

It seems churlish to keep placing the onus for climate change onto individual’s behaviour, when we know that 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of global emissions. Nobody is going to argue with the fact that the meat industry is damaging the environment, and that eating less meat as a society is beneficial; but it’s impossible to discuss this whilst divorcing it from the contexts that drive people to eating meat as a staple of their diets. The report gives no consideration to the question of what level of income would be required to adopt this diet comfortably; it doesn’t even consider other things, like what your skill level is like in the kitchen, whether you have dietary conditions (the incidence of nut allergies is increasing), whether you’re recovering from an eating disorder, or what your own personal relationship with food is.

There’s nothing wrong with asking people to change their diets – eat less of something, more of something else, whatever. But if we continue doing it in this didactic, apolitical way, nothing will ever stick.

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