EAT Lancet: the global food plan without global appeal

The EAT Lancet report caused controversy for telling us to eat more plant-based foods. The real challenge though is that it relies on a progressive and global world view, which is not shared by everyone. Somehow, we have to reconcile local and global interests.

In January 2019, a Norwegian think tank called EAT and the British medical journal The Lancet published a report on the future of food. Written by an international body of 37 scientists and others headed by Harvard University, and financed by the Wellcome Trust, it proposes global guidelines for a ‘diet for the Anthropocene’, one which will work on two fronts.

On the one hand, shifting us to a healthier diet will reduce early deaths from diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease in industrialized countries, and under-nutrition in poorer ones. At the same time, farming in a way that reduces our environmental impact will allow us to meet UN Sustainable Development Goals and improve our chances of averting climate disaster.

This Great Food Transformation, as they modestly title it, calls for a big shift in the way that we eat and produce food, and one of the strongest recommendations in it is that all of us in the industrialized countries eat less meat.

A shift to plant-based foods

The authors call on a large body of evidence that suggests that a diet high in plant-based foods, and low in red meat, dairy products and added sugars, is not only healthier for humans but also – because of the impacts of livestock farming, especially – better for the ecosystems that support us.

They then go on to set some targets for both diet and food production that indicate the scale of the change that is required, while also showing how they all fit together in a framework that observes ‘planetary boundaries’ and creates what they call a ‘safe operating space for food systems’.

Transgress a health boundary, whether that’s because of too much cheese in the US or too much starchy tubers in sub Saharan Africa, and you have high numbers of people dying from diet-related diseases.  Break a food production boundary, for instance by allowing the area under cultivation to encroach on forest, or by using too much fertilizer, and you drive wildlife to extinction and pollute soils and watercourses.

Ever since we began to move away from eating what our local area produced and embraced the imported foods paid for by industrialization, a gap has been opening up between on the one hand what the earth’s ecosystems can easily supply, which is what we have evolved to eat and so tends to be good for us, and on the other the almost limitless choice we have come to expect.

We have been indulging our taste for sugar, salt and fat, with more novelty and convenience, and we haven’t been paying attention to the environmental and health consequences of our new habits. (In fact, the human diet was healthiest of all when we were still hunter gatherers, and we became less healthy when we started farming, but only agriculture can support the population we have now).

A mixed response

It was courageous therefore of EAT and The Lancet to look the food, health and environment balance sheet in the eye and start work on a plan to even it up. It was also inevitable that the drastic scale of the adjustments required would be unwelcome news to many people, accustomed to a diet that is by now deeply ingrained and not convinced of the need for change.

Predictably, the report was broadly welcomed by progressive campaigning groups, such as Sustain, the Food and Climate Research Network, the Food Ethics Council and many others. It backs up what they had all been saying for a long time about both the health and environmental consequences of the modern diet, it brings together an evidence base, and it proposes a bold framework for tackling the problem. Simply the fact of having a global plan at all, with widespread institutional support, was cause for celebration.

Just as predictably, there was plenty of dissent. A central part of the report, and the one which has received the most attention, is the call for a more plant-based diet, accompanied by criticism especially of cattle farming. This is both because of the saturated fat in meat and dairy, long implicated in a heart disease, and the fact that so much land is devoted to growing grain for cows, when it could be feeding humans directly, or (in the case of the rainforest) supporting wildlife.

This attack on red meat drew criticism from organizations such as the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, the NFU and the Sustainable Food Trust, who variously pointed out the role of cows in a mixed farming system, the high nutritional value of meat, and the negative environmental impacts of growing plant proteins and oils.

The effect of these responses was not however to call the entire report into question, but rather to fine tune its conclusions and add some nuance. To some extent these criticisms were anticipated by a sentence in the report which acknowledges its own limitations: “Local interpretation and adaptation of the universally-applicable planetary health diet is necessary and should reflect the culture, geography and demography of the population and individuals,” it says.

Maybe that is why NZ Beef and Lamb felt able to welcome EAT-Lancet with surprising enthusiasm, pointing out that they already advise a high proportion of plant-based foods in people’s diets, and that their own red meat production is grass-fed and environmentally responsible.

Others however took serious issue with the report. Some challenged the assertion that a low-meat diet would provide adequate nutrients. Some argued that livestock production is not in fact a major producer of greenhouse gases. Some questioned the evidence that links red meat and dairy products with heart disease, something that is very easy to do as it is ethically and practically impossible to run proper standardized trials with human populations.

One study pointed out that the diet would be unaffordable for people in poorer countries. In doing so, these critics were all challenging the evidence and the logic that EAT-Lancet was using, and sometimes also shifting the emphasis of the global food debate by bringing in other factors, such as the livelihoods of small livestock farmers.

There was another more dubious element to the criticism however, as critics tried to undermine the report by questioning its origins. Food writer Joanna Blythman pointed out that many of the experts behind it were vegetarian or vegan and suggested that they were therefore biased. In addition, she said, Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), the founder of the Wellcome Trust who paid for the research, was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, a religious group with vegetarian leanings, and made his money in pharmaceuticals, which again suggests a particular set of values.

Furthermore, she argued, the EAT Foundation has a partnership with FreSH (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health), a group of 40 companies representing pesticides, genetic modification and ultraprocessed foods. Could it be that EAT-Lancet had a hidden agenda, to convert the world to plant-based foods produced in the factories of multinational companies?

Some of these questions are legitimate. The way that a person is funded, and the company they keep, does matter.  Interestingly, a letter appeared in The Lancet itself some months later, rebutting its recommendations for cutting meat consumption in a detailed argument that questioned the report’s methodology. In line with good practice, a paragraph at the end disclosed the authors’ other business, which included a grant to the first author from the US National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, an obvious indication of his sympathies.  Clearly, there are vested interests on both sides of the Great Food Debate.

There is however a delicate balance to be maintained between on the one hand drawing attention to a person’s training and affiliations, in order to assess their likely bias, and falling into the ad hominem fallacy, whereby an argument is dismissed not because it is wrong but because you don’t like the person making it. This is where arguments become messy and unkind, and there was plenty of that too in the response to EAT-Lancet.

Comments like “the most corrupt and disgusting attempt to control agriculture there has ever been”, and a “piece of veg based pseudoscience” convey the general idea. Vitriol was directed at its authors and funders; the woman who heads EAT, Gunhild Stordalen, being a vegan married to a billionaire, ammunition was easy to find.

Said one, “the billionaire elitists can #EATLancet themselves. I’ll stick to eating real food”, while another denounced the “global elites who jet around the world telling us simpletons how we need to live and what we need to eat!!”. The hashtag #Yes2Meat is still in heavy use over a year later.

A closer look at Twitter

Another letter printed in The Lancet late in 2019, the first author is which is David Garcia of the Stockholm Resilience Centre which is a partner of the EAT Foundation, presented an analysis of the Twitter response to EAT-Lancet. Based on an analysis of 4278 Twitter users and 8·5 million tweets, the authors found that the hashtag #Yes2Meat appeared a few days before the launch of the report and grew rapidly thereafter. It was associated with tweets that were largely negative towards the report, and linked to the dissemination of critical, even defamatory articles.

The authors put this down to a growing community of sceptical social media users and describe how people who had initially been ambivalent tended with time to become negative towards EAT-Lancet. They conclude from this that scientists are under threat from ‘polarisation, so-called content pollution, and disinformation’ and should ‘act proactively, to avoid manipulation and misinformation about issues of fundamental importance for human health and the planet’.

The authors of this letter present themselves as the standard-bearers of science and enlightenment, and ascribe negative motives to their opponents. The effect of their letter is therefore to intensify the polarization by suggesting that the users of #yestomeat are either unable to accept scientific evidence, or else are easily led by others. More importantly though, the letter highlights some of the fundamental weaknesses of social media as a forum for debate.

Twitter positively encourages people to rally under different standards – #foodcanfixit, #yes2meat, #meatheals, #vegan – and argue with each other in the most simplistic terms. On one side, people post pictures of bacon and eggs and announced how healthy they feel, while on the other they share stylized images of plant-based foods that advertise their sophistication. Graphs are traded for newspaper articles, and slogans stand in for arguments.

Reasonable objections?

At first sight, given the gravity of the global challenges we face and the obvious justice of many of the report’s points, some of the more extreme criticisms of EAT-Lancet do indeed seem boorish and irresponsible. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest to grow soya to feed to cows in industrialized countries, and the soaring rates of obesity and diabetes in these same countries, to take two examples, both cry out for remedy. Surely these ill-mannered objections can safely be dismissed as the rantings of uninformed people, manipulated by social media? But just because people express themselves badly, does not prove they are wrong.

It is actually quite hard to draw a line between objections that are reasonable and advance the debate, and angry reactions which muddy the waters. Even seemingly rational statements can carry a note of disdain and can cleverly dismiss objections rather than really answering them, while emotional outbursts can include a germ of wisdom.

Indeed, the force with which they are expressed can have a lot to do with the frustration that arises when you are accustomed to not being taken seriously, and find yourself outwitted. A good education, meanwhile, can simply enable us to dress up our prejudices in an attractive and convincing way, rather than teaching us how to think.

What then might lie behind the savage attacks on this apparently well-meaning report? The overall impression is one of people outraged by the dethroning of meat, and by extension, the dismissal of certain traditional diets. You can see how that might work if you look at the report itself, which is illustrated with pictures of immaculately styled designer food.

Some of it is just about recognizable – a pod split open to reveal a row of peas inside sits beside what might be pasta on one plate, while another appears to be a rice salad – but others are hard to recognize as something we might eat. What are those strange blue lumps? And who eats this stuff, apart from delegates at international conferences? It looks artificial and bizarre, and if your idea of a slap-up meal is a roast beef dinner, or sausage and mash, or even cheese on toast, you are not going to warm to this. You might well find it insulting.

The right side of history

Then there are the tables listing what we should all be eating if we want to be on the right side of history when the Great Food Transformation gets going. Never mind the comforting remarks about ‘local variation’, and no matter that it is all voluntary anyway; the figures say with a disconcerting precision that we only get 14 g of red meat a day, which is roughly one burger a week, and we see the food being snatched off our plates.

 It is as if a self-appointed global government were to impose wartime rationing overnight, sourcing their power not from a consensus view of how to respond to a manifest crisis, but from a body of scientific knowledge that is inaccessible to most people, held by a network of institutional relationships that is beyond most of us to challenge.

The EAT-Lancet report is a necessary attempt to face a big problem, but it has one big drawback: it proposes a global food plan that is not globally appealing. That doesn’t matter in a way, because we have to start somewhere and a clear statement such as this certainly gets the debate going, but it shows how much work there is to be done before we can talk about a concerted plan to reform the world’s food system. The report tells a clear story, it is slick and sophisticated, and it appears to have right on its side. And yet it has revealed deep divisions and raised questions that will have to be tackled by other means.

Global values

Global action is something new for humanity, and it requires a new way of looking at the world. It means looking beyond our usual concerns for our families and our nations, and feeling some kinship with people who are different from us. And not just people but also the animals, plants and microbes with whom we share the planet. We need to recognize our part in an interconnected world, and that means a change in the values that guide our lives. We must come to see that our flourishing is intertwined with that of the greater whole.

The Common Cause Foundation describes this as a shift from values of self-enhancement to self-transcendence, or universalism, and it is working to place ‘values that prioritise community, environment and equality’ at the heart of public life. This is vital work, given a political climate which is much more about money, competitiveness and achievement. It means seeing food less as a commodity and more as something that connects people with each other and the natural world.

However, as Common Cause acknowledges, humans cannot exist in a continuous state of planetary consciousness. We also have bodies to feed, families to support and communities to belong to. We are members of nations too, and that gives us responsibilities, as we find out when elections and referendums come round. All of these engage different values in us, ones to do with survival, belonging and identity.

According to The World Values Survey, which tracks human values over time, whole countries can be classified according to the values which predominate in them. On their values map they identify an axis along which we move from concerns about survival to self-expression, by which they mean openness, trust, tolerance and participation — the basis for a global world view.

Distribution of values in different countries in 2010–2014, from the World Values Survey

While Protestant Europe and the English-speaking world score high for self-expression and so global awareness, large swathes of the world’s population including Russia, eastern Europe, Africa and the Islamic world are all more focused on their own survival. There is of course variation within countries, not just between them. These differences in values may show up in arguments as national interests versus globalism — an aspect of the Brexit debate, incidentally — or as disagreements about food and farming.

While EAT-Lancet might appeal to such paragons of global altruism as Sweden and Canada, and liberal elites within other countries, the research suggests that a broad mass of the world’s population is too deeply locked into local concerns to see much beyond them. That doesn’t make them selfish or ignorant, except perhaps by narrow definition; it is just how things are, for good historical and geographical reasons.

Any genuine global plan for food must take account of human nature. There is no point being right, if you alienate people and don’t take them with you. To be fair, EAT Lancet has stressed the need for its diet to be adjusted to local conditions, even suggesting that some populations need to eat more livestock products, especially in sub-Saharan Africa for instance where they need more nutrient-dense foods to make up for a diet that is poor in other respects.

That is the work that must now be done. We need to make local and regional plans that together will add up to a global plan, and we need to recognize that some groups of people will find it easier to change than others. That will mean a lot of detailed conversations and experimentation, and it will be difficult – much harder than repeating Twitter hashtags and slogans.

We need a develop a global plan for food, but we aren’t there yet.