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A diet for the Earth

Ecological vegetables being grown in the Basque Country.
Ecological vegetables being grown in the Basque Country. / M. SALGUERO
  • Fewer calories, and 'greener'. A medical study has linked healthy eating with the future of the planet. "We won't be healthy unless we treat the environment as well," warn researchers

The health of the planet and that of humans go hand in hand. While the globe is suffering from a dangerous 'fever' due to rising temperatures and climate change we, its inhabitants, are multiplying our 'footprint' through the intensive way we exploit its resources to feed ourselves. The solutions for these problems are connected, say scientists, and they are now talking about a 'planetary health diet'.

These experts say we humans should stop consuming so many calories, and the Earth should not have to suffer deforestation or the emission of gases deriving from methods of putting food on our tables which is also harmful to us.

The present situation is bad and wasteful. Each person in Spain throws away about half a kilo of food a day: that's 180 kilos each a year, yet this is still one of the countries which produces and eats better than others.

In the rest of the world 20 per cent of beef, 35 per cent of fish and 45 per cent of fruit ends up on rubbish tips or have passed their expiry date. More than 1.3 billion tons of food will end up being thrown away in 2019, one-third of the world's food production, according to forecasts by the United Nations Food Organisation (FAO).

This is an unacceptable cost for our health and that of the planet. It takes up 40 per cent of the soil and 70 per cent of fresh water to fill our plates, and generates more than 30 per cent of contaminatory emissions, yet there are still 820 million people suffering from hunger and another two billion with very poor diets. The best example of this vicious circle is the newest illness to affect both poor and wealthy countries: excess weight and obesity.

For the past three years the prestigious medical journal 'The Lancet' has examined studies into this subject by dozens of experts in 16 countries. It says the three challenges of obesity, malnutrition and climate change interact and affect human and planetary health and they need solutions which interrupt their common impulses.

The problem is also getting worse and could be irreversible if the dynamic is not reversed before the population reaches 10 billion, as it is expected to do in 2050. "We urgently need a radical transformation of the global food system," warns the journal.

The whole scientific community was already aware of this, but until now their data had not been compared. "The biggest contribution to this work is that a medical journal like 'The Lancet' recognises that medicine can't resolve human health without taking the environment into account, and that this improvement in our health will also benefit our common home," says Fernando Valladares, the head of the Ecology and Global Change team at the National Museum of Natural Sciences.

However, as this biologist admits, "it is even harder to get people to change their diet than it is to change their religion". 'The Lancet' proposes a dietary 'liturgy' which will sound familiar to people in Spain as it is very similar to the highly-praised Mediterranean diet. It is designed for a consumption of about 2,500 calories a day (in many western countries people consume more than 3,500) and the menus are adapted to the cultural characteristics and preferences to each region of the planet.

Less meat

The diet of the future should be based on vegetables (between 200 and 600 grams a day), fruit (at least 300 grams) and fish (100 grams). Carbohydrates should be rice, corn and wheat, which can provide 60 per cent of the calorie base. The greatest change called for by the analysts, though, is with regard to proteins. They say these should not form more than 15 per cent of the diet, and some should be practically eradicated altogether. Red meats could be about to disappear from meals, and also added sugars (30 grams a day).

'The Lancet' says beef and lamb should be limited to under 100 grams a week, which would be the equivalent of eating one small burger every seven days. Nor should we be eating more than one and a half eggs a week. The alternative can be chicken or turkey (up to 400 grams). We should eat twice as many nuts (up to 350g a week) and increase our consumption of pulses (525g).

Is all this feasible? In its conclusions, the medical journal admits that some parts may sound extreme, or not very feasible, but it also points out that it has been the tradition in some regions, such as the Mediterranean, which it describes as the best example studied: "This diet was low in red meat and many of the foods were of vegetable origin, but the total amount of fats ingested was high (40 per cent of energy), principally in the form of olive oil".

The research refers to this diet in the past tense because it is regressing. "In the 1970s people talked about a 'green revolution' because of the advance in horticulture and support for less intensive systems for production, but in fact there wasn't much green about it. Now is the time to change that," says Celsa Peiteado, the head of Agriculture, Rural Development and Sustainable Food for the WWF in Spain.

Many lives are also at stake. If this can be achieved by 2050 it could save up to 11 million deaths a year caused by food-related illnesses.

Other arguments also indicate that our health is related to that of the planet, and say that time is running out. "In these debates, time is against us," says Valladares. "By the time we achieve the ideal diet, it may already be too late".

Everybody 's and nobody's

The fight against climate change is marked by environmental summits (Kyoto, Rio, Paris) but it will not be easy to oblige countries to establish criteria for sustainable food production. For that reason, experts and environmental activists are calling for measures "from the bottom upwards" which involve people. "A large part of the power is in our own hands," says Celsa Peiteado.

"We need an important review of the world food system on a scale never seen before, and it must be adjusted to the circumstances of each country," says one of the coordinators of the study, Tim Lang, a professor at London University.

The experts insist that the information is available, but as the editorial which 'The Lancet' includes with its study says, it's everybody's problem and nobody's problem.

At the WWF, the biggest environmental organisation in the world, Peiteado refers to several aspects which would improve the situation: "Local, agro-ecological production; make the producer and the consumer the priority of the food chain; restore ecosystems, put an end to intensive practices, and involve the whole of society".

There is another, which is already under way: a tax on harmful foods. "In Ireland they already charge a tax on sugary drinks," says Valladares. In Mexico, too. As well as labels on food to show its composition and the price of each dish featuring on restaurant menus, some people are also in favour of the environmental costs of bringing the dish to our tables being stated. "In the same way, taxes could be reduced for those who offer the same at a lower cost," say Celsa Peiteado and Fernando Valladares.

One day we will decide not to eat steak, not because it costs 25 euros but because 300 grams of carbon dioxide are generated in producing it.

billion tons of food are thrown away every year - half a kilo by each person in Spain - and that is one-third of world food production.

caloríes a day are needed in a balanced diet. Western populations consume over 3,500 and suffer from, or are under threat of, obesity.