Walter Willett, Johan Rockström, Brent Loken, Marco Springmann, Prof Tim Lang, Sonja Vermeulen et al.
Unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than does unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined. Because much of the world’s population is inadequately nourished and many environmental systems and processes are pushed beyond safe boundaries by food production, a global transformation of the food system is urgently needed.
The absence of scientific targets for achieving healthy diets from sustainable food systems has been hindering large-scale and coordinated efforts to transform the global food system. This Commission brings together 19 Commissioners and 18 coauthors from 16 counties in various fields of human health, agriculture, political sciences, and environmental sustainability to develop global scientific targets based on the best evidence available for healthy diets and sustainable food production. These global targets define a safe operating space for food systems that allow us to assess which diets and food production practices will help ensure that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Agreement are achieved.
We quantitatively describe a universal healthy reference diet to provide a basis for estimating the health and environmental effects of adopting an alternative diet to standard current diets, many of which are high in unhealthy foods. Scientific targets for a healthy reference diet are based on extensive literature on foods, dietary patterns, and health outcomes. This healthy reference diet largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, includes a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and includes no or a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables. The global average intake of healthy foods is substantially lower than the reference diet intake, whereas overconsumption of unhealthy foods is increasing. Using several approaches, we found with a high level of certainty that global adoption of the reference dietary pattern would provide major health benefits, including a large reduction in total mortality.
The Commission integrates, with quantification of universal healthy diets, global scientific targets for sustainable food systems, and aims to provide scientific boundaries to reduce environmental degradation caused by food production at all scales. Scientific targets for the safe operating space of food systems were established for six key Earth system processes. Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change by contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater use, interference with the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and land-system change (and chemical pollution, which is not assessed in this Commission). Food production depends on continued functioning of biophysical systems and processes to regulate and maintain a stable Earth system; therefore, these systems and processes provide a set of globally systemic indicators of sustainable food production. The Commission concludes that quantitative scientific targets constitute universal and scalable planetary boundaries for the food system. However, the uncertainty range for these food boundaries remains high because of the inherent complexity in Earth system dynamics.
Diets inextricably link human health and environmental sustainability. The scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food systems are integrated into a common framework, the safe operating space for food systems, so that win-win diets (ie, healthy and environmentally sustainable) can be identified. We propose that this framework is universal for all food cultures and production systems in the world, with a high potential of local adaptation and scalability.
Application of this framework to future projections of world development indicates that food systems can provide healthy diets (ie, reference diet) for an estimated global population of about 10 billion people by 2050 and remain within a safe operating space. However, even small increases in consumption of red meat or dairy foods would make this goal difficult or impossible to achieve. Within boundaries of food production, the reference diet can be adapted to make meals that are consistent with food cultures and cuisines of all regions of the world.
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