Meat sector slams vision of plant-based future

A recent report from the EAT-Lancet Commission makes the case for drastically reducing meat consumption

A diet rich in plants and low in animal-based products could feed a hungry world and save the environment.

That is the conclusion of the EAT-Lancet Commission report released Jan. 16.

EAT is a non-profit foundation based in Sweden that funded the report written by more than 30 experts from around the world. It has received mixed reviews as it calls for a transformation in global agricultural practices and established eating customs.

The report recommends a sustainable agriculture system to feed 10 billion people by 2050 while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stopping landscape degradation.

No new agriculture land expansion should be permitted and international policies are needed on land use, reforestation and biodiversity preservation by protecting 50 percent of the Earth as intact ecosystems, it said.

To meet climate change goals set in the Paris Agreement, the global food system must become a net carbon sink by 2040, which means more efficient water use, recycling of phosphorus, redistribution of global use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer, changes in crop and feed management and enhancing biodiversity within agriculture systems.

While it is short on how its recommendations could be accomplished, the report does talk more about a planetary health diet rich in plant-based foods for improved health.

The emphasis is on eating more whole grains, nuts, legumes and vegetables with small servings of red meat, poultry, eggs, fish and dairy foods. Red meat should not be eaten more than once a week, the report says, while highly processed foods, added sugar and saturated fats should be limited.

“Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50 percent,” it said.

“A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.”

The authors recognize that more meat may be needed in some parts of the world because growing enough fruit and vegetables in places like sub-Saharan Africa is challenging.

Some commodity groups consider the privately funded report controversial and lacking in scientific rigour.

Widespread behaviourial changes are unlikely because people have always eaten meat, said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food policy at Dalhousie University.

“Right now we are overpowered by this plant-based narrative. There is lots of noise supporting the rhetoric and I do see that as a rhetoric because most of these reports are written by like-minded people,” he said.

“Right now the food elitists have taken control of the scientific process.”

Representatives from the pork and beef sectors also disagree with a sharp reduction in consumption of their product, arguing people need the full range of amino acids and other nutrients found in meat.

“It was well intended but woefully lacking in accountability for the statements,” said Mary Ann Binnie, head of nutrition and industry relations at the Canadian Pork Council.

“It really doesn’t have the credibility that the (Canada) Food Guide does.”

More emphasis needs to be placed on the nutrient density of meat compared to other proteins.

“Meat’s environmental impact is substantially lower considering the nutritional value it provides,” said Jill Harvie of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

A universal diet heavy in plant-based products is not feasible.

“Many folks are undernourished and overfed,” Harvie said.

“Dietary trends show obesity rates have soared while the percentage of energy foods naturally rich in high quality protein such as milk, meat, fish and eggs have fallen. That is a trend here in Canada too. People have substituted with other things.”

The cattle sector is often targeted for excessive greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation.

“Zeroing in by reducing or eliminating beef from the diet as an environmental change silver bullet, it really distracts from changes that need to be done across other many other sectors for meaningful improvement,” said Harvie.

“All food production systems come with their own impacts and benefits. We really need to emphasis the benefits when it comes to grazing animals.”

The cattlemen’s association says benefits include contributions to environmental health in terms of carbon sequestration on grasslands, preserving biodiversity and water filtration.

The report also targets food waste, something the meat sector can agree with.

“There are other things we really need to manage and that is food waste,” Harvie said.

Food waste is estimated to be as high as 40 percent in Canada, so more work needs to be done on overeating, reduced spoilage and portion control. The report recommends a 50 percent reduction in food losses during production and consumption, which could be achieved with improved post-harvest infrastructure, transportation, processing, packaging and consumer education.

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