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A healthy planet needs diverse diets

by Joao Campari | WWF International
Friday, 25 January 2019 08:51 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Currently, we get more than 50% of our plant-based calories from just three crops, even though more than 5,000 have been used for food historically.

Joao Campari is Global Food Practice Leader at WWF International. 

This week, at the World Economic Forum, world leaders are discussing how to adapt and survive in an age of globalisation and technological disruption. Like all other global structures, the food system will transform, but while we strive to provide nutritious and healthy food to all we can’t forget what we rely on for our food: nature. It can no longer suffer from how we produce, consume and waste food.

Without concerted action, the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 50-90% by 2050, but the good news is recent studies have shown that if we significantly reduce food waste, improve farming practices and technologies, and shift our diets it is possible to feed everyone within planetary boundaries. Of particular importance are diets - food system greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by more than half if mainly plant-based diets with modest meat consumption were adopted globally.

While we can evolve our diet, we can’t expect that everyone in the world will eat the same thing. We must always be adaptable to what is locally available and affordable. Diets are highly personal and influenced by local cultures and individual choices. We can’t become prescriptive about what people eat, but it is possible for every person on the planet to consciously choose foods with fewer environmental impacts - we can work together to encourage diets which are balanced and better.

In terms of balanced, individually and collectively, we need to eat a diverse range of foods to get the right amount of nutrition (which is best advised by National Dietary Guidelines) and to protect biodiversity and tackle climate change.

We need to balance our protein sources but we can also expand the types of plants we eat - we get more than 50% of our plant-based calories from just three crops, even though more than 5,000 have been used for food historically. So it’s not just a case of ‘more rice’, but broadening the plants we eat to preserve agrobiodiversity.

In terms of better, we must also make sure the variety of foods we eat are sustainably produced and ideally local and seasonal. We don’t have to change everything we eat to have a positive environmental impact; we can start by picking the best versions of what we do eat.

To take meat as an example, many landscapes would require large-scale conversion to cropland to generate food, but can be used as-is for ranching. By managing such grasslands as pastures and using them to produce meat, we can ease pressures on conversion elsewhere, while livestock will naturally ensure healthy soil with an increased ability to store water, sequester carbon and provide habitat for biodiverse flora and fauna. This somewhat mitigates the climate impact of methane emissions.

Likewise, palm oil is frequently produced in an unsustainable manner but when done right can be integrated with conservation. To protect forests, many call for abandoning palm oil and using alternatives, but it would actually take more land, and cutting down more trees, to generate the same amount of oil from another source.

It’s not that we must remove meat, palm oil or anything else from our diets – it’s that if we choose to eat them we do so in balance and demand they are sustainably produced. Businesses, governments and financiers must lead the way, implementing policies and practices which drive diversification of what is grown, a more sustainable approach to farming, and distribution and pricing structures which ensure produce is economically viable for farmers and affordable for the masses.

Globally, we must evolve the food system, but we can’t expect nor should we desire one global diet. What is available, nutritious, culturally acceptable and environmentally compatible will differ around the world. What is clear is that as the entire system transforms, it must evolve to serve not just people, but also nature. There is no sustainable tomorrow without our planet being given as much bearing as its inhabitants – we need a New Deal for Nature and People. We can add our voices to this call: as we consider what we eat, we can ask if based on what’s available it is really the best choice – for us or our planet.