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Big Food = Big Tobacco

2th February 2019

The recently published EAT-Lancet Commission report – Food in the Anthropocene: The EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems – warns obesity, undernutrition and climate change are the biggest threats to humanity and called for a global treaty to limit the political influence of Big Food. The report considers the threats pandemics as they affect people in every country and region worldwide. Compiled by 37 scientists from around the world, the report calls for a radical change to diets.

To improve health, the report recommends a “planetary health diet” that everyone eat half as much red meat and sugar and twice as many nuts, fruits, vegetables and legumes. This amounts to one serving of red meat per week with similarly stringent targets for white meat, fish, egg and dairy consumption. By shifting to a more plant-based diet, another of the threats would be addressed: climate change.  While the report acknowledges that animal production can be beneficial in some ecosystems, it says a plant-based diet would cause fewer adverse environmental impacts. The report estimates that changes in food production could reduce greenhouse emissions from agriculture by 10% by 2050, whereas increased consumption of plant-based diets would reduce emissions by 80%.

The report argues for a “Framework for Convention on Food Systems” modelled on the equivalent WHO framework convention for tobacco control. The EAT-Lancet language is strong, arguing for “hard policy interventions” including laws, fiscal measures (read taxes), subsidies and penalties, trade reconfiguration and other economic and structural measures. The report authors argue “the scale of the food system changes needed is unlikely to be successful if left to the individual or the whim of consumer choice”.

Perhaps not surprisingly for such an ambitious study, there have been criticisms of the Commission, report and findings. Have attracted some criticism. Some nutritionists who analysed the EAT Lancet diet found it to be nutritionally insufficient, relying on discredited epidemiological studies, whose results are overturned by clinical trials 80% of the time. According to critics, the diet appears to prescribe more calories from sugar than from meat or eggs. Many aspects of the diet appear to favour highly processed oils, although in the text the standard recommendation to avoid processed foods is offered. The authors acknowledge the recommended diet is unsuitable for growing children, adolescent girls, pregnant women, aging adults the malnourished and impoverished who those with pre-diabetes.

The Sustainable Food Trust welcomed the analysis in the report, but said a “fundamental lack of agricultural understanding” means some of the dietary recommendations aren’t compatible with food production in sustainable farming systems. According to the Trust, the report fails to distinguish between livestock that are part of the problem and those that are an essential component of sustainable agriculture.

Then there’s some perceived conflicts. The EAT Foundation, which produced the report in collaboration with the esteemed medical journal The Lancet was founded by Norwegian billionaire and animal rights activist which funded the extensive PR campaign. The Wellcome Trust also provided funding, a family company with strong ties to the 7th Day Adventist Church which promotes vegetarianism. Then there was some controversy over the fact that 31 out of the 37 authors advocated for vegetarian or vegan diets prior to undertaking the study.  One of the authors, Marco Springman has recently released a report advocating a tax on meat.

Over-hyped media reports have perhaps overstated the push for “everyone to go vegan” contained in the EAT-Lancet report, it is more nuanced than that. This is a major piece of work and recognises that some of the biggest challenges facing humans cut across disciplines of health, nutrition, environment, ecology, agriculture, marketing, transport and trade. It is a call to action, if not the final word on food systems that need to be overhauled  to be part of the solution rather than constantly being made into the major problem.