WWF reminds us that our current food choices often neglect one important effect of the global food system: environmental sustainability. Current food production methods and their impact on natural resources inadvertently affect our wellbeing and the planet at large. To maintain good health and meet climate change targets, we cannot compromise nutritional benefits or environmental costs. A new report suggests we are doing the latter.
Earlier this month, WWF released a report that reveals the necessary health and environmental benefits of adopting what it calls a "planet-based diet." This means choosing foods that are produced with respect to local capacity, can meet nutritional needs and are in alignment with environmental sustainability goals.
From WWF's perspective, many current government dietary guidelines do not align with global health and environmental goals. Agricultural food processes are costing the planet freshwater and accelerating tropical deforestation and biodiversity loss. Food produced in this detrimental fashion is often over- or under-consumed.
Take, for example, the U.S. According to WWF, Americans are over-consuming meats, sugar, saturated fats and sodium and under-consuming vegetables, fruits, dairy and fish. These trends account for growing rates of chronic diseases and deficiencies.
This isn’t only about taking on climate change or simply consuming more plant-based foods. A planet-based diet is not merely a consumer choice. Each country is facing unique challenges from its own food system.
WWF illustrates this point by explaining that encouraging 'flexitarian' or vegan diets in India or Indonesia would accelerate biodiversity loss, as the nutritional need for fruits and vegetables and the resulting global demand would dramatically increase. To combat this, farmers, retailers, governments, and consumers must all participate in creating and supporting sustainable food production that is specific to each country.
There are numerous benefits to adopting a planet-based diet. For us, this means a reduced rate of premature mortality and chronic diseases. For the planet, it means the preservation of freshwater and the prevention of tropical deforestation and biodiversity loss.
WWF highlights five strategic actions that would benefit from a planet-based diet: reversing biodiversity loss, staying within the global carbon budget for food, utilizing existing cropland, achieving negative emissions, and optimizing crop yields.
Much of global biodiversity loss stems from not using healthy plant species that are adaptable to food production and climate change and instead opting for animals. According to ongoing WWF research, agriculture is the cause of the extinction of 80 percent of mammals and bird species globally. And biodiversity loss isn’t limited to the impacts of livestock. For example, in Denmark, biodiversity loss is largely driven by coffee, tea and cocoa.
As it is important to balance every country’s nutritional needs and agricultural capacity, living within the global carbon budget for food requires the same approach. This means equally distributing this budget to all countries, so all parties have the same responsibility of combating climate change and tackling their local food issues. Another action supported by dietary shifts is halting the expansion of croplands and instead growing food and improving its production to support people instead of livestock.
Taking such action will require us to be innovative in food production processes. WWF says it supports methods of conservation agriculture, agroforestry and regenerative agriculture because it will produce more food with fewer resources. In comparison to animal foods, plant-based food products require fewer natural resources. In fact, WWF points out that the majority of water use is attributed to meat and dairy livestock consumption, and consuming plant-based foods can reduce water use by 8 percent in the U.S.
How can we implement the planet-based diet when so many sectors are involved? It may seem daunting to implement changes quickly when almost every country has different regulations, agricultural capacity and nutritional needs. For action steps, WWF emphasizes collaboration, creating ambitious government dietary guidelines, adopting new regenerative agriculture practices and minimizing the use of pollutants. In addition, cover crops and improved grazing techniques will protect natural resources. WWF also stresses policies and aligning legislation that together protect biodiversity and improve food production.
Essentially, a planet-based diet emphasizes local needs, food accessibility and nutrition, while tackling problems like tropical deforestation and biodiversity loss. We cannot balance one or the other. With agriculture accounting for 27 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to WWF’s research, we must not ignore the impact of our food choices.
On that point, WWF released an online tool for people to do just this. The Planet-Based Diets Impact and Action Calculator sheds light on every individual’s impact and areas for improvement. Along with this, countries can come up with their own solutions that align with a planet-based diet. We will be unique in how we implement this diet, but will face the same consequences if we don’t.
Image credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash
Rasha is a freelance journalist with experience in external communications and publicity. She is a Ryerson School of Journalism graduate and has worked on various media and communication campaigns in film, home development and the nonprofit sector. Rasha is passionate about storytelling for impact, whether she focuses on social enterprise, transforming our food system or making the business world more inclusive.