We need a green diet that’s not half-baked

Julian Baggini considers the merits and flaws in EAT-Lancet’s ‘planetary health diet’

It’s “the flexitarian diet to feed 10 billion” (BBC) which “would ‘transform’ planet’s future” (the Guardian). The “planetary health diet” produced by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health has generated plenty of column inches and chatter, most focusing on how little meat and dairy it recommends we eat, for the sake of our own health and that of the planet. It recommends only 43g of meat and poultry per day per person, and less than half (13g) a small egg. While vegans and vegetarians are feeling vindicated by the report, many others are infuriated by it, not least Irish dairy farmers, many of whom would be put out of business if people took up the recommendations.

The report is a substantial piece of work by an impressive body of experts and its findings should not be dismissed lightly. Its overall message that the average westerner needs to shift to a more plant-based diet and cut down on meat is difficult to contest on health or environmental grounds. However, individuals thinking about changing their eating habits as a result need to think very carefully about several of the report’s limitations.

First of all, the widely reported dietary recommendations are not based on environmental considerations at all. The “Healthy reference diet” as they call it is based entirely on nutritional evidence but just so happens to be environmentally sustainable too. This neat concurrence might make one suspicious and there has been a lot of debate about whether the diet really reflects any kind of consensus on optimal human nutrition.

However, the more significant limitation of the report is that it deals only with food groups, making no distinctions about how foods within those groups are produced. That is perhaps unavoidable when talking about the global food system as a whole. But we don’t eat food types, we eat particular foods, and which ones we choose makes a big difference, to the planet and also perhaps to our health.

Take health first. For example, there have been several reports in recent years about the health risks of cured meats, such as bacon. But the reason why many cured meats are carcinogenic is that a lot of nitrates are added in industrial production. Bacon from organic and free-range pigs, however, tends to be much lower in nitrates, often not adding any at all. So while is may be true that most bacon is bad for you, not all bacon is equal. How much you can safely eat depends on the type of bacon you buy.

The same is true of many other foods. The evidence base is not always robust enough to substantiate claims that organic, pasture-fed, free-range foods are better for you, but we do have very good reason to believe that, generally speaking, highly industrialised and processed food does you less good.

When it comes to environmental impact, the evidence is much stronger. Take beef and dairy, for example. These have become environmental demons for a host of reasons: forests have been cleared either to rear cattle or to grow soy beans to feed them, and (although this has recently been contested) the methane they produce is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. The average burger or steak is therefore a genuine menace to the planet.

But not all cows are equal. What if the cattle is grazing on grassland that wasn’t woodland before and which isn’t suitable for agricultural production? That is the case with almost all pasture-fed cattle in the UK, and so problems with deforestation and soy feed simply don’t apply. As for greenhouse gases, the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association insists that animals reared according to their standards have a carbon footprint “significantly lower than that of farms where cereal crops are grown to feed animals.” That is because “Grassland helps capture and store carbon so less is released into the air to harm the atmosphere,” and “Grazing animals return nutrients and organic matter back to the ground as they deposit their dung, ensuring the soil remains healthy and fertile.”

The EAT-Lancet Commission does not go into detail about the third element after people and planet that any ethical eater needs to consider: animals. Here, all beasts are certainly not created or slaughtered equal. There is less animal suffering in the life of a well-reared grazing beef cow than there is in one of an intensely farmed dairy cow. People too often assume that being a vegetarian automatically implicates you in less animal suffering. Any genuine “planetary health diet” has to take account of the well-being of the planet’s animals too.

The problem with reports such as that of the EAT-Lancet Commission, and the way they are in turn reported, is that they encourage people to think about food in too broad-brush a way. What we all need to do, if we want to eat ethically and healthily, is ask a lot more questions about not just what food types we eat but how it is produced. An organic steak, for example, is almost certainly better for the planet than a carton of vegan almond milk made from nuts grown with frighteningly high levels of pesticide and unsustainable gallons of water. A pure beef pasture-fed burger is also probably better for you than one of the leading vegan burgers that lists as its ingredients: pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, acetic acid, non-GMO modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, beet juice extract (for color), ascorbic acid (to maintain color), annatto extract (for color), citrus fruit extract (to maintain quality), vegetable glycerin.

The planetary health diet has done a good job of putting ethical, sustainable, healthy eating high on the agenda. Moving forward, however, we’re going to have to get beyond thinking simply in terms of food groups and pay a lot more attention to how foods that seem to be the same are in fact hugely and importantly different.