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EAT-Lancet’s recommendations are at odds with sustainable food production

Although intensive cattle in some countries are fed on grain, ruminants in many countries predominantly eat grass and arable by-products which humans cannot digest. (Image source: Regina Hart /Flickr)

The EAT-Lancet report has recommended changing diets and global food systems

Due to a fundamental lack of agricultural understanding, some of the main dietary recommendations are incompatible with the food production outcomes of truly sustainable farming systems. For instance, in prioritising reductions in beef and lamb consumption over poultry consumption, the resulting environmental and health outcomes will both be negative.

If fully implemented, the recommendations would make it impossible to introduce sustainable and restorative farming systems in countries like the UK, where a high proportion of farmland is only suitable for growing grass. In addition, grass and grazing animals need to be reintroduced into many all-arable crop rotations to address the serious problems of soil degradation and biodiversity loss.

The failure to make a stronger recommendation in relation to reducing poultry meat consumption is misguided. We recognise that meat consumption overall needs to be reduced, but poultry is in direct competition with humans for grain. Although intensive cattle in some countries are fed on grain, ruminants in many countries predominantly eat grass and arable by-products which humans cannot digest. In relation to the environment, our analysis is that for net greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, biodiversity, diffuse agrochemical pollution and human health, reductions need to be made in meat that is largely fed on grain, not meat that is predominantly fed on grass.

Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), said, “We welcome the fact that the report highlights the urgent need for fundamental change in farming systems and diets. However, it does little to inform the public about the path to a sustainable future and in some key respects will make things worse.”

Many of the report’s recommendations, such as increased consumption of vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes are all sound, but when it comes to protein and fats the recommendations to depend so heavily on plant sources, poultry rather than red meat and unsaturated fats compared with saturated fats are fundamentally flawed. Humans have evolved as red meat eaters and, providing this is part of a balanced diet, beef and lamb provide superior types of protein and fat to plant sources.

Fats make up 36 per cent of daily energy intake in the UK. But rather than getting these from UK grassland via meat and dairy products in an environmentally friendly way as we once did, consumers currently get these from palm oil and soyabean oil, associated as they are with devastating environmental destruction, and from rape and sunflower oil, the production of which have been major causes of pollinator decline due to the high need of these crops for insecticides when grown as monocultures. Over the last decade, a large number of studies in leading peer-reviewed journals, including one in the Lancet itself have challenged the belief that saturated fats are inherently harmful. The fact that this evidence has been completely overlooked by authors suggests that in this area at least, they may be driven more by ideology than a balanced assessment of the evidence.

Many studies have shown that in drought-prone regions of the world, in particular, and areas with poor soil quality, the most important thing is to maintain or build soil organic matter and this can only be achieved sustainably by integrating crop and livestock production and introducing nitrogen by deep-rooting leguminous plants rather than soluble fertiliser.