EAT-Lancet report ignores nutrition research and food security needs
The American Society of Animal Science (ASAS) supports efforts to bring balanced diets to the millions of people around the world suffering from food insecurity. That’s why we were interested in reading the recent EAT–Lancet Commission report, a paper on “healthy diets from sustainable food systems” spearheaded by Harvard’s Walter Willet, MD, and published Jan.16, 2019 in Elsevier’s journal The Lancet.
At first glance, the recommendations sound reasonable in a time of rapid population growth. The authors conclude that: “Feeding a growing population of 10 billion people by 2050 with a healthy and sustainable diet will be impossible without transforming eating habits, improving food production and reducing food waste.”
Unfortunately, the actual recommendations are not based on sound science. The main recommendation is that people worldwide shift to a significantly more plant-based diet. For example, the authors allow for 7g (15 calories worth) of beef per day and 1.5 eggs per week. Health and agriculture experts around the world have pointed out that the amount of animal-based protein allowed by the diet would leave people nutritionally deficient.
Overall, authors ignore nutritional science, overlook the impracticality of the recommendations for developing countries, and vastly overstate the impact of animal agriculture on the environment.
“The report fails to provide us with the clarity, transparency and responsible representation of the facts we need to place our trust in its authors. Instead, the Commission’s arguments are vague, inconsistent, unscientific, and downplay the serious risks to life and health posed by vegan diets,” writes Georgia Ede, MD, an experienced medical researcher, licensed psychiatrist and columnist for Psychology Today.
Gebregziabher Gebreyohannes, Ph.D., State Minister, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of Ethiopia, called the report a “step in the right direction” but questioned the safety of the recommendations for people in developing countries where animal protein is desperately needed.
“For example, it notes the potential of eggs to reduce stunting and asserts that many Africans, might benefit from more ‘animal source protein.’ But it could say more about how, in the developing world, milk, meat and eggs are necessary ingredients in the sustainable, healthy diets that we all strive for, and that they support the livelihoods of millions, across Africa and Asia,” Gebreyohannes wrote in a column for Thomson Reuters Foundation News.
The truth about nutrition
In making a one-size-fits-all recommendation for diets around the world, the authors of report ignore the nutritional value of animal-sourced proteins.
A quick round-up of the facts:
Protein: Millions around the world do not consume enough animal protein. Animal protein is key for maintaining muscles and performing cell functions. It’s important to remember that not all protein is created equal. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and different protein sources provide very different amino acids. Animal-based proteins tend to contain a good balance of amino acids, while plant-based proteins often lack important amino acids, such as lysine (source).
Iron: The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that anemia is a deadly problem around the world. Anemia affects a quarter of the Earth’s population—and anemia killed an estimated 273,000 people in 2004 (source). We know that red meat is a great source of iron, especially a form of iron called “heme” iron, which is more readily absorbed by the human body than other plant-based forms of iron (source).
Other important nutrients found primarily in animal products are B-12, vitamin D, zinc and DHA, a fatty acid found mainly in fish (source).
These elements give animal products a unique “nutrient density,” which is why people like Gebreyohannes are working to bring more animal products to their countries. “Ethiopians consume on average a tenth as much meat as people in developed countries, so moderate increases in milk and meat consumption create an opportunity to improve malnutrition and stunting,” Gebreyohannes writes.
Oddly, the EAT-Lancet diet allows a person to eat the equivalent of 8 teaspoons of sugar per day, which boosts calories but not nutrients. This would appear to contribute to the problem of calorie-rich, nutrient-deficient diets that are increasing in developing countries (source).
Misleading environmental numbers
Sustainability and agriculture experts agree that the EAT-Lancet report uses flawed data to inflate the impact of animal production on the environment.
Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., a professor and air quality specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, has pointed out that the authors made a common mistake: They assumed that all land used for agriculture could be converted to cropland. In reality, 70 percent of agricultural land is “marginal,” meaning it is unsuitable for crops. Producers can still make use of this land though by grazing animals there.
“If we were to forego meat—which, by and large, is what they are suggesting—by reducing our animal-based foods by 90%, we would lose the use of the vast majority of agricultural land for food production. That is taking things in the wrong direction,” Mitloehner said in a recent presentation to the Iowa Pork Congress.
Mitloehner is also curious why the EAT-Lancet commission calculated the global warming potential for methane at twice what the accepted numbers actually are. Even if the commission’s report was based on solid science, Mitloehner says the recommended diets would not even have the intended environmental impact.
“While EAT-Lancet claims its reference diet would decrease greenhouse gas emissions, the Commission's fundamentally flawed data fail to account for methane reduction (i.e., oxidation) that occurs naturally, as methane remains in the atmosphere for only 10 years,” said Mitloehner in a Twitter discussion.
Real ways to reduce hunger
Farmers, scientists and policy makers around the world are already working on more practical steps toward food security.
We know that we can improve nutrition by improving supply chains and reducing food waste. This will help more people eat the balanced diets they need. In fact, these were the conclusions of a recent report on food systems in Asia, which gave concrete examples of ways to reduce waste. The EAT-Lancet authors do touch on food waste in their report, but they only explore the issue for a paragraph and do not make any specific recommendations outside of a vague need for public education campaigns and policy changes.
We can reduce environmental impacts of agriculture by identifying and breeding more productive animals and investing in biotechnology that would make animal production more efficient. Animal scientists in many countries are also working to improve animal and human health by eradicating livestock diseases and monitoring the food system for pathogens like Salmonella. Animal scientists are also investigating how to combat heat-stress in animals, which is likely to become more of a problem as global temperatures rise due to climate change.
These are practical ways to address food security while also promoting sustainability, human health and animal well-being.