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For a healthier planet and people, we must fix our broken food system

by Paul Polman & Gunhild Stordalen | Food and Land Use Coalition
Wednesday, 6 February 2019 10:01 GMT

Vegetables are pictured at the opening day of the International Green Week (Internationale Gruene Woche) agriculture and food fair in Berlin, Germany, January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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

We now have a roadmap for action on nutrition and sustainability, based on scientific evidence - let's use it

Dr Gunhild Stordalen is Founder and Director of EAT, and Paul Polman is former CEO of Unilever and Chair of the Food and Land Use Coalition.

Food is not only the most fundamental of human needs, but also one of the closest connections humans have with the natural environment. Along with the air we breathe and the water we drink, the food we eat is also a leading driver of public health.

An immense challenge before us is to provide a growing world population - one that will reach 10 billion by mid-century - with healthy diets from food systems that don’t destroy the planet.

Lately, it has become alarmingly clear that the disconnect between food production and consumption has fuelled two massive public health challenges, that are intricately connected. While global food production of calories has generally kept pace with population growth, more than 800 million people are still going hungry, while more than 2 billion others are overweight or obese. Unhealthy diets now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined.

Meanwhile, our dependence on animal protein in the developed world, combined with a lack of dietary diversity, is having a detrimental effect on our planet. With increasingly frequent extreme weather events, chronic soil degradation and mounting health costs, failure to act will result in the collapse of the very systems we need to sustain people and planet.

Fixing our food system offers a huge opportunity to prevent runaway climate change and biodiversity loss, improve the livelihoods of the millions who work in agriculture, and secure the health and wellbeing of generations to come. Respecting and restoring our land globally could slow its contribution to global warming - where land use now releases as much as 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions - and could ultimately return the land to its historic role as a net carbon sink.

That the food system is broken is now widely understood. However, there´s less agreement on exactly what needs to be done. What the world has lacked, until now, is a scientific understanding of how to approach this complex challenge.

That’s why the EAT/Lancet report, Our Food in the Anthropocene: Healthy diets from Sustainable Food Systems, is so important. It's the world´s first effort to define credible science-based targets and a clear view on what it would take to feed close to 10 billion people by 2050 in a sustainable and nutritious way within safe environmental limits.

Just as the Paris climate agreement and Sustainable Development Goals provided an ambitious framework to create a more sustainable, equitable and inclusive world by 2030, we now have a roadmap for action on nutrition and sustainability, based on the best available evidence.

The report highlights the urgent need to focus simultaneously on three main levers: the improvement of agricultural technology and management; protein diversification in diets; and reduction of food loss and waste.

As businesses produce, manufacture and sell most of the world’s food, we have a responsibility to be a part of the solution, and doing so should also be good for the bottom line. The Business and Sustainable Development Commission estimates that transforming food and land use systems could generate $2.3 trillion a year and create 80 million jobs by 2030.

There is a huge untapped market for healthier foods from more diverse sources, and smart companies are starting shift their investments. Alongside leveraging corporate finance, companies must also reorient their business strategies towards the delivery of food that is sustainable, nutritious and accessible to all. This means applying business expertise—in areas such as agri-tech, data processing, product innovation, distribution and brand marketing


Visionary companies and individuals are already setting a course for a healthier and more sustainable future. For example, New York-based Chef Pierre Thiam is using his position as a taste-maker to increase New Yorkers’ appetite for super-nutritious grain fonio. The grain grows in the Sahel region, is resilient to drought conditions and fixes nitrogen into the soil - a future-friendly alternative to industrialized cash crops that dominate global grain markets.

Innovations could prove invaluable in preventing food waste. In fact, saving one quarter of the food currently lost or wasted would be enough to feed 870 million people – around 65 million more people than currently go hungry.

Meaningful progress will require government, civil society and business to work together to enact targeted measures across the entire food system. A top-down strategy will not suffice, and solutions must come from all levels, right down to consumers themselves.  

Healthy food for a healthy planet – that is our North Star. By balancing nutrition and environmental considerations, the EAT/Lancet Commission provides a significant new resource to help us navigate a pathway to this ambition.

As proven in the report, it is possible to feed everyone enough healthy food within safe environmental limits. We must call on governments to develop comprehensive food and agricultural policies, and the business community must apply lessons from the report to business strategy and investment, engage in collective solutions and build global momentum for change. 

Our systems are ripe for change, and the time to act is now.