Towards a Great Food Transformation?

The once solid position of animal source foods (ASFs) as valuable nutrition in dietary models is no longer undisputed. This is particularly the case for red and processed meats, but increasingly also for other ASFs. The recent Planetary Health Diet, which was designed by the EAT-Lancet Commission to induce a Great Food Transformation, is a driving force of this new paradigm. Its proponents claim benefits for humans, animals, and the planet, thereby arguing for a range of hard policy interventions to move the global population towards more plant-based eating.

Dietary guidelines often discourage ASFs

Global, national, and regional health authorities have the mission to shape the eating behavior of the public at large, by communicating their scientific opinions and recommendations via dietary guidelines. The place of ASFs within healthy and sustainable diets is increasingly under scrutiny, by proclaiming the need for a restricted intake of saturated fat from animal origin [AHA 2015; NHS 2017; WHO 2018] and of red meats and processed meats in particular [WHO 2015; NHS 2018].
 
Since such organizations - and the advice they promote - represent expert opinion, this readily results in appeal to authority, hinders the debate on what constitutes an 'optimal' diet [see elsewhere], and suppresses and marginalizes dissident opinion. At times this can be patronizing, pushing Western nutrition theory upon cultural minorities [Best & Ward 2020; Katz-Rosene 2020], and thereby neglecting 'complexities of nourishment that are at the heart of kinship, social life, and caregiving' [Burnett et al. 2020]. The result is often a monolithic 'one-size-fits-all' reductionist approach to food and nutrition [Katz-Rosene 2020], excessively relying on an animal/plant divide [see elsewhere].
 
This is, for instance, the case for the 'Nunavik food guide', whereby a Mediterranean-style pyramid, rebranded as an igloo-shaped model, is used to 'reflect current issues in nutrition and to meet the needs' of the local Inuit [NRBHSS 2020]. Meat, fish, and fat, that were once at the heart of historical arctic diets [see elsewhere], have been strongly de-emphasized to the benefit of previously irrelevant foods such as vegetables, exotic fruits, (breakfast) cereals, and milk. Similarly, the Australian 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Guide to Healthy Eating' is superficially framed as a traditional dietary model but is once more based on Western nutritional dogma and at odds with indigenous eating habits [NHMRC 2015].
 
Although dietary guidelines are more tolerant with respect to poultry, the recommended values for red meat (16-26 kg/p/y) are much lower than what is currently the case in the West [60-70 kg/p/y; see elsewhere] and far below what was the case for ancestral hunter-gatherer diets consumed during most (>95%) of the existence of the human species [see elsewhere]. To further underline the evolutionary mismatch of such nutritional advice, even chimpanzee populations are said to consume 10 kg (4-15 kg) of hunted meat per individual on average [Kaplan et al. 2002], possibly amounting up to 30-70 kg for some of the males (as meat is not evenly distributed and consumed within chimpanzee communities) [Nishida 2012].
 
The Planetary Health Diet
 
The epitome of Western-centric dietary interventionism can be found in the so-called 'Planetary Health Diet', which is a semi-vegetarian diet proposed by the EAT-Lancet Commission [Willett et al. 2019]. The diet sets a target for red meat at 5 kg/p/y and suggests a total meat intake of 0-16 kg/p/y, also implying a caloric contribution of 0-14% by all ASFs [derived from Willett et al. 2019]. It prescribes minute daily rations of beef or pork (each at 7 g) and eggs (13 g), in addition to some poultry (29 g), fish (28 g, but limited at 40 kcal), and dairy (250 g, limited at 153 kcal). For comparison, the limit for sugar was set at 31 g (120 kcal). This implies that the advised sugar intake is higher than for any of the ASF categories, except dairy. The authors also endorse a full-vegetarian or vitamin B12-supplemented vegan approach as valid options.
 
Although the diet is described as universally favorable for human health and the planet, it has been criticized for neglecting ecological, cultural, and socio-economic context [Gebreyohannes 2019; Torjesen 2019; Tuomisti 2019; Burnett et al. 2020; Katz-Rosene 2020]. Its budgetary impact is too high for the world's poor [Hirvonen et al. 2019], while urban bias is visible in EAT's use of 'plant-based' influencers and chefs [EAT 2019]. The Planetary Health Shopping List illustrates this, by referring to such items as tahini, olive oil, avocados, and sushi sheets [EAT 2019]. Also, the suggestive depiction of India and Indonesia as near-vegetarian models to stay 'within the planetary climate boundary for food' [Loken & DeClerck 2020], is an expression of Western romanticization [see elsewhere]. It contradicts actual dietary preferences [Karpagam et al. 2020] and passes lightly over the undernourishment of parts of these populations [cf. stunting rates in children; Adesogan et al. 2020].
 
Adding to critique on its societal acceptance, the diet's scientific premises have also been questioned for being unrealistic and lacking transparency [Thorkildsen & Reksnes 2020]. After being pressured on the environmental claims related to the reduction of ASFs, EAT's Science Director stated that the dietary calculations were 'not set due to environmental considerations, but were solely in light of health recommendations' [Mitloehner 2019]. Commentary on its health assumptions is addressed elsewhere on this website, but has also been formalized in literature [Leroy & Cofnas 2020; Zagmutt et al. 2019a, 2019b, 2020], to the point of being dismissed as 'science fiction' [Prof. John Ioannidis quoted in Bloch 2019]. For a discussion of the environmental aspects of ASF avoidance, see also elsewhere.
 
The hard push for a Great Food Transformation

EAT, the foundation advocating the above-mentioned 'Planetary Health Diet', is aiming at a radical and global transformation of the food chain though public-private partnerships under patronage of the World Economic Forum [see elsewhere]. The diet, therefore, is not a mere theoretical exercise, but a top-down policy plan for a far-reaching and authoritarian 'Great Food Transformation' [Leroy & Cohen 2019; Leroy & Hite 2020; Leroy et al. 2020]. 
 
The EAT-Lancet Commission is in favor of hard interventionism: 'countries and authorities should not restrict themselves to narrow measures or soft interventions' because 'the scale of change to the food system is unlikely to be successful if left to the individual or the whim of consumer choice' (emphasis added) [Willett et al. 2019]. The call to use hard policy levers (including the restriction and elimination of dietary choice) has been supported by other partners within the EAT network, such as the World Wildlife Fund [WWF 2020] and World Resources Institute [Ranganathan et al. 2016]. 
 
The Food and Land-Use Coalition, launched in 2017 to transform the global food system by 2050 based on the EAT-Lancet guidelines, has stated that it will 'go deep into the policy, regulatory environment, and businesses of individual countries' (emphasis added), starting with Colombia, Indonesia and Ethiopia, and targeting the Nordics, Australia, and Europe next [EAT 2020]. For Colombia, the focus is reasonably on less ultra-processed foods and more regenerative farming rather than a shift to EAT-Lancet prescriptions [FOLU 2019a,b]. Australia, however, should aim at a 91-% decrease in red meat consumption by 2050, directing its production at export [FOLU 2019]. For China, in contrast, there is 'no policy that forces people to change their diet', so that an increase in pork, poultry, fish, and milk is foreseen for 2050 [FOLU 2019].
 
Options proposed by the Commission and its close allies encompass mass-marketing campaigns and nudging towards plant-derived imitation products [using 'supportive narratives'; WEF 2019], influence over supermarket display, the stimulation of 30-day diet challenges (of the 'Veganuary' type), modification of dietary guidelines, fiscal and economic incentives, and legal measures ranging from the mandatory use of nutritional warning labels, over the application of 'sin taxes', to the banning of meat from menus [de Boer et al. 2014; Ranganathan et al. 2016; Springmann et al. 2018; WWF 2020]. 
 
Examples of interventionism include:

  • C40's 'Good Food Cities Declaration' by the Mayors of 14 global cities, engaging themselves to steer their citizens towards the EAT-Lancet Diet by 2030 [C40 2019], setting both a progressive (16 and 90 kg/p/y of meat and dairy, respectively) and ambitious target (zero meat and dairy) [C40 2019].
  • Some C40 cities have reduced meat availability in public canteens, as for schools in Milan [WEF 2020] and Barcelona [weekly minimum of two vegan meals and maximum of one meal with red meat in schools; Ajuntament de Barcelona 2020].
  • Bogotá (Colombia) is not part of C40's 'Good Food' declaration, but is strongly engaged in C40 Cities' climate action group [C40 2020]; after declaring a climate crisis, the city council has introduced a meatless day [Arias Bonfante 2020]. 
  • Active promotion and greenwashing of vegan burgers by UN Environment [UN Environment 2019], a close ally of EAT and strategic partner of C40 'on a range of issues' [UNEP 2019].
  • Calls for mandatory vegetarian meals and a reduction of ASFs (red meat in particular) in public canteens spreading beyond the C40 city network [Weston 2019; TheLocal 2020], although attempts were not always successful [e.g., Denmark; FoodSupply 2020].
  • Calls to 'cut down on meat' as part of the cartoon-like 'Good Life Goals' [OnePlanet2020], designed for education by key partners of EAT [e.g., SEI and WBCSD; see elsewhere].
  • Bans on lamb and/or beef by educational institutions [Young 2020], e.g., Goldsmiths University of London [BBC 2019], Cambridge University [Cambridge University 2019], and the University of Coimbra [Moyler 2019]; while Oxford University is pressured to go in the same direction [Tritsch 2020].
  • Vegetarian meals as the default option in the zoo of Amsterdam [AT5 2018] and during events of its City Council [AT5 2019] or of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Sciences [ATS 2018].
  • A pledge to cut meat by 20% by public sector caterers in the UK, of which the meals reach 1/4 of the population and are being delivered to schools, universities, hospitals, and care homes [Carrington 2020].
  • Plans of New York’s City Council to halve the red meat supply in municipal buildings and phase out processed meats in schools and hospitals by 2030 [Martin 2019].
  • Meatless Mondays, e.g., in New York public schools [Rosa-Aquino 2019] and in the Norwegian Armed Forces [which were met with resistance; Milford & Kildal 2019].
  • San Francisco's decision to cut down on meat, eggs, and dairy in city jails (50% reduction by 2024) and hospitals (15% reduction by 2023) [Schneider 2020].
  • Manipulations of the display of ASFs in retail [cf. an Oxford University project funded by the Wellcome Trust, a co-founder of EAT; Poulter 2019].
  • EAT-Lancet's shaping of official dietary advice in Canada [Webster 2019] and Denmark [DTU 2020; Altomkost 2021], as well as the EU Green Deal and Farm-to-Fork strategy [European Commission 2020].
  • Various calls for the implementation of a tax on ASFs, either for health or environmental reasons [Wirsenius et al. 2010; Wellesley 2015; Heikkinen 2016; Springmann et al. 2018; Carrington 2020; Pieper et al. 2020; Win 2020], for instance by The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change [Cockburn 2020; UKHACC 2020].
  • Emotive and anxiety-inducing communication, directly targeting children and representing ASFs as evil and threatening food choices [Greenpeace 2020].
  • A suggestion to expel meat eaters from restaurants, equating them to smokers, by Christiana Figueres (UNFCCC’s ex-Executive Secretary; member of the WRI's board of directors) [Vella 2018].
  • Suggestions that a 'climate lockdown' may become necessary, including a ban on red meat, by Marianna Mazzucato, professor at University College London and member of the UN Committee on Development Policy  [Richardson 2020; WBCSD 2020].
  • Pleas to legally ban ASFs [cf. publication funded by the Wellcome Trust; Deckers 2013, 2016].

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