For the sake of our health and for the environment, a transformation in global food and farming systems is long overdue. Will our primary sector grab the opportunity or will it continue to cling to the belief there will always be plenty of consumers overseas willing to pay high prices for high-quality meat and dairy?

“Civilisation is in crisis. We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. For the first time in 200,000 years of human history, we are severely out of synchronisation with the planet and nature. This crisis is accelerating, stretching Earth to its limits, and threatening human and other species’ sustained existence.”

So declares The Lancet’s editorial accompanying its recently released study by its Commission on the global food system. The joint project by the British peer-reviewed medical journal and EAT, a Scandinavian NGO, involved 37 leading scientists across relevant disciplines from 16 countries.

They deliver the scientific evidence of our nutritional and environmental disasters and offer scientific targets and practical strategies for reversing them by transforming global food and farming systems.

While this is an imperative for every nation, it offers abundant opportunities for New Zealand’s primary sector. It can play crucial roles in contributing to radical changes in food and farming, thereby securing its future.

The project partners offer excellent resources to help people and organisations understand what’s at stake. EAT’s versions are for general audiences and The Lancet’s for scientific ones, yet they are very readable by all. People in a hurry could start with its 20-minute podcast.

Red meat consumption in North America is five times the recommended intake per person; in Europe and central Asia it is three times.

The versions of the report are so clear and cogent, eight of the fundamental factors they identify deserve quoting at length:

– “In the past 50 years, global food production and dietary patterns have changed substantially. Focus on increasing crop yields and improving production practices have contributed to reductions in hunger, improved life expectancy, falling infant and child mortality rates, and decreased global poverty.”

– “However, these health benefits are being offset by global shifts to unhealthy diets that are high in calories and heavily-processed and animal source foods. These trends are driven partly by rapid urbanisation, increasing incomes, and inadequate accessibility of nutritious foods.”

– “Transitions to unhealthy diets are not only increasing the burden of obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases but are also contributing to environmental degradation.

– “The human cost of our faulty food systems is that almost 1 billion people are hungry, and almost 2 billion people are eating too much of the wrong food. The Global Burden of Disease Study indicates dietary factors as a major contributor to levels of malnutrition and obesity…the burden of non-communicable diseases is increasing, and unhealthy diets account for up to 11 million avoidable premature deaths per year.”

– “Food production is the largest cause of global environmental change. Agriculture occupies about 40 percent of global land, and food production is responsible for up to 30 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and 70 percent of freshwater use. Conversion of natural ecosystems to croplands and pastures is the largest factor causing species to be threatened with extinction. Overuse and misuse of nitrogen and phosphorus causes eutrophication and dead zones in lakes and coastal zones.”

– “Environmental burden from food production also includes marine systems. About 60 percent of world fish stocks are fully fished, more than 30 percent overfished, and catch by global marine fisheries has been declining since 1996.”

– “Agricultural production is at the highest level it has ever been, but is neither resilient nor sustainable, and intensive meat production is on an unstoppable trajectory comprising the single greatest contributor to climate change. Industry too has lost its way, with commercial and political interests having far too much influence, with human health and our planet suffering the consequences.”

– “Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts, including a greater than 50 percent reduction in global consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and a greater than 100 percent increase in consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.”

The Commission’s data, analysis and graphics are compelling. For example, red meat consumption in North America is five times the recommended intake per person; in Europe and central Asia it is three times. Dairy consumption in those three regions is only moderately above the recommended intake. But the adverse environmental impacts of dairy production per serving are similar to red meat so they share the same transformational challenge.

Let’s learn from Volkswagen

Here in New Zealand, our red meat and dairy sectors argue they have two advantages over their competitors abroad: they are more efficient, and their pasture-based systems have lower environmental impacts compared with feedlot farmers overseas. Thus, they believe they will always have plenty of consumers overseas who are willing to pay high prices for their high-quality products.

But that’s as logical as if Volkswagen said it will always have plenty of customers for its high quality, reliable, safe and relatively low emission fossil fuel cars. Quite the contrary. It announced in December it was designing its last range of fossil fuel engines it will ever make. They will go into production in 2026 to tide it over until electric, hydrogen and other zero-emission technologies are ubiquitous.

Our farmers need a Volkswagen moment. Yes, they will keep producing quality meat and milk. But how can they transform their science and practices to turn their farms from sources of greenhouse gas emissions into carbon sinks? This would help turn their farming from an extractive system to a regenerative one. With zero nutrient loss it would be far more productive and environmentally sustainable.

One goal, two targets, five strategies

Obviously, this has to happen to food and farming globally, as the EAT-Lancet Commission concludes.

– “With food production causing major global environmental risks, sustainable food production needs to operate within the safe operating space for food systems at all scales on Earth. Therefore, sustainable food production for about 10 billion people should use no additional land, safeguard existing biodiversity, reduce consumptive water use and manage water responsibly, substantially reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, produce zero carbon dioxide emissions, and cause no further increase in methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

– “Transformation to sustainable food production by 2050 will require at least a 75 percent reduction of yield gaps, global redistribution of nitrogen and phosphorus fertiliser use, recycling of phosphorus, radical improvements in efficiency of fertiliser and water use, rapid implementation of agricultural mitigation options to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, adoption of land management practices that shift agriculture from a carbon source to sink, and a fundamental shift in production priorities.”

To those ends, the Commission offers:

One goal: To achieve planetary healthy diets for nearly 10 billion people by 2050.

Two targets:  Setting scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production.

Five strategies:

– seek international and national commitment to shift toward healthy diets;

– re-orient agricultural priorities from producing high quantities of food to producing healthy food;

– sustainably intensify food production to increase high-quality output;

– strong and coordinated governance of land and oceans; and

– at least halve food losses and waste, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Behind each of these, the Commission’s report offers a wealth of scientific evidence and practical advice. It has plenty of allies too, such as EAT itself, and food and farming initiatives involving many major multinational food and agribusinesses organised by World Economic Forum and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Push back or grasp the opportunity?

However, the pushback from vested interests has begun. One way the US Dairy Council tried to rebut the Commission’s report, for example, was to offer a link to a sharply critical article in Psychology Today. It was written by Georgia Ede, a “Harvard-trained psychiatrist and nutrition consultant practicing at Smith College”, which is a small, high profile liberal arts tertiary institution in Massachusetts.

One of her main criticisms was the Commission’s use of nutritional epidemiology, surveys which seek to find statistical correlations between people’s food and illnesses. While this is a challenging methodology given the difficulty of gathering accurate data on what individuals eat, it does offer insights which can then be subjected to deeper research.

Nonetheless, epidemiology was long a favourite target of the tobacco industry and continues to be disparaged by those who cite it as an example of “junk science.”

No doubt we will have a far more constructive response from New Zealand’s dairy and red meat sectors, once they understand this transformation in global food and farming systems is the best opportunity they will ever have.

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