OPINION: Rebalancing our plates to restore our planet

by Joao Campari | WWF International
Tuesday, 27 October 2020 13:00 GMT

A selection of vegetable-based dishes, ranging from corn and mushroom tapas to a more classic assortment of olive, lentil, cheese, garlic and beetroot tapas, on offer at vegetarian restaurant Artemisia in Buenos Aires July 7, 2010. Meat-loving Argentina has seen a growth of vegetarian restaurants, associations and products as more diners have dropped steaks from their diet. To match Reuters Life! ARGENTINA-VEGETARIANS/ REUTERS/Martin Acosta

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Diets in Brazil cause five times the GHG emissions of diets in Nigeria, and Russia uses four times as much land as Pakistan

João Campari is the Global Food Practice Leader of WWF. 

There have been many recent calls to shift to more sustainable diets, but most have looked at global solutions. Dietary shifts, however, can only be achieved through local action. To date there has been a lack of clarity on how countries existing in different contexts can make these shifts. It will require balancing food-based impacts on biodiversity, land-use, greenhouse gas emissions and water availability, and new research from WWF shows how it will play out differently country to country.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of healthy and sustainable diets. Unsustainable agriculture is among the key drivers of emerging infectious diseases and the pandemic is driving risks of increased food insecurity. Many countries need to increase food consumption to address hunger and improve human health; but at the same time minimize environmental impacts. Meanwhile, richer countries rarely equate human health to environmental health and often encourage eating patterns which are detrimental to the efforts to restore our planet.

Unequal impacts of today’s unhealthy, unsustainable diets

There is disparity in the environmental impacts of how different countries currently eat. For instance, diets in Brazil cause five times the GHG emissions of diets in Nigeria, and six times as many as in Pakistan, despite their populations being similar. Russia, whose population is smaller, uses more than double the amount of land Nigeria uses to feed its citizens, and more than four times as much as Pakistan.

The research shows a shift to planet-based diets would be a win-win outcome for Brazil and other developed countries. Environmental impacts would be reduced, but increased consumption of healthier foods would also deliver human health benefits - reducing premature mortality by at least 22% in Brazil and over 23% in Spain and the United States.

If we are to restore our wildlife populations, along with our forests, grasslands, oceans and freshwater ecosystems, richer countries must reduce the environmental footprint of their diets.

Diets in developing countries, on the other hand, have smaller footprints, but those countries suffer disproportionately from malnutrition, climate change and food-related conflict.

Many lower and middle-income countries need to increase their total calorie consumption to tackle undernourishment. In Malawi, meeting nutritional needs means increasing calories by 14%. In El Salvador it's an increase of 15% and in Serbia, 22%. Without changes in production, this could mean 30% more GHG emissions in Malawi, 19% more water use in El Salvador and 10% more water pollution in Serbia.

Although many diets are low in calories, they have good nutritional balance. For instance, nutritionally, diets in West Africa are some of the healthiest in the world, based on lean meats, vegetables, legumes and little processed food.  However, as countries’ develop and their populations increasingly urbanize there is a trend to adopt unhealthy, high-impact ‘Western’ diets (high in fats high in fats, refined sugars, ultra-processed foods and animal-source foods).

This should be avoided, to minimize increases in environmental impacts that will accompany improved health in developing countries.

Increased resilience in a more equitable food system

While many of us have the ability to choose what we eat several times a day, approximately nine percent of people are effectively locked out of the food system. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how vulnerable these communities can be to global shocks. Dietary shifts can reduce environmental impacts, meaning a more stable climate and more biodiversity. This will improve food security and reduce the vulnerability of rural communities, small holder farmers, and others who depend on them.

Everyone should adopt a planet-based diet but the more fortunate have a particular responsibility to rebalance their plate, equating healthy and sustainable eating - for the benefit of the planet, themselves and their fellow global citizens; to ensure the human right to nutritious and healthy food for all. Transforming the food system requires many actions, including adopting nature-positive production practices and reducing food loss and waste, but dietary transitions are integral. A sustainable future is one in which we all have access to healthy and nutritious food. The time to act is now.