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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Harvard: Food System Transformation Needed for Human and Planetary Health

Nearly a billion people around the world are going hungry, and nearly two billion are undermining their health by eating too much of the wrong food. At the same time, food production is driving the destruction of natural resources that support human life. Unless these trends are reversed, according to a new report, the consequences for human and planetary health could be dire. What’s needed is nothing short of what the authors call a “Great Food Transformation.”

The EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems report, co-authored by Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, calls for global cooperation and commitment to shift diets toward healthy, largely plant-based patterns; make large reductions in food loss and waste; and implement significant sustainability improvements in food production practices. It was published online January 16, 2019 in The Lancet.

“We are presently on a path leading to a seriously degraded planet.” Dr. Willett said. “If we care about the world our children and grandchildren will live in, we need to transform our diets and the way we produce our food. An immediate benefit will be improvements in our health and wellbeing.”

The EAT-Lancet Commission convened 37 leading scientists from 16 countries in various disciplines including human health, agriculture, political sciences, and environmental sustainability to develop the world’s first scientific guidelines for healthy and sustainable diets. The experts argue that these diets — which are largely plant-based and low in red meat and sugar — are the best way to feed a global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. A widespread shift in the way people eat could prevent approximately 11 million premature deaths each year and slow environmental degradation, the authors say.

The guidelines are not a one-size-fits-all prescription, according to Dr. Willett. “Diets that are healthy for people and our planet can provide tremendous variety, flavor, and enjoyment,” he said. In addition to vegan and vegetarian diets, there are options for omnivores. He cited, for example, the Mediterranean diet, a largely plant-based plan that prioritizes healthy oils and fish over butter and other animal proteins. “This is a big culinary umbrella with room for everyone,” Dr. Willett said.

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