Defining a safe operating space for food systems in the Anthropocene

12 March 2019 — Climate & Capitalism

Healthy people, healthy planet

A  food system revolution is urgently needed, to provide healthy diets for all while preventing irreversible damage to the Earth System.

A key element of any ecosocialist program must be a global drive to end hunger and malnutrition, combined with a shift to sustainable agriculture. To date, however, we have not carefully considered just what those transformations would involve.

An excellent starting point for discussions of this issue is Food in the Anthropocene,  published last month in the UK medical journal The Lancet. Prepared by an international commission chaired by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Center and Walter Willett of Harvard University’s Departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology, it is the first full scientific report that analyses both how diets must change to ensure human health, and how farming must change to protect the Earth System from irreversible damage.

The following is the Executive Summary, lightly reformatted for on-screen reading.

The EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems
Executive Summary

Food systems have the potential to nurture human health and support environmental sustainability; however, they are currently threatening both. Providing a growing global population with healthy diets from sustainable food systems is an immediate challenge. Although global food production of calories has kept pace with population growth, more than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume low-quality diets that cause micronutrient deficiencies and contribute to a substantial rise in the incidence of diet-related obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

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 countries 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.

Because food systems are a major driver of poor health and environmental degradation, global efforts are urgently needed to collectively transform diets and food production. An integrative framework combined with scientific targets can provide essential support for a sustainable and healthy food transformation. This Commission concludes that global food systems can provide win-win diets to everyone by 2050 and beyond. However, achieving this goal will require rapid adoption of numerous changes and unprecedented global collaboration and commitment: nothing less than a Great Food Transformation.

We focus mainly on environmental sustainability of food production and health consequences of final consumption. However, the food system consists of much more than these factors. A transformation of the global food system should ultimately involve multiple stakeholders, from individual consumers to policy makers and all actors in the food supply chain, working together towards the shared global goal of healthy and sustainable diets for all.

However, humanity has never aimed to change the global food system on the scale envisioned in this Commission; this objective is uncharted policy territory and the problems outlined in this Commission are not easily fixed. Three lessons can be learned from other examples of societal responses to global changes.

First, no single actor or breakthrough is likely to catalyze systems change.

Second, science and evidence-gathering are essential for change.

Third, a full range of policy levers, from soft to hard, will be needed.

Together, these lessons guide the thinking that will be necessary to transform the global food system. In addition, we outline five specific and implementable strategies, which are supported by a strong evidence base. Our modelling and analysis shows their effectiveness for achieving a Great Food Transformation. These strategies are:

(1) Seek international and national commitment to shift towards healthy diets. The scientific targets set by this Commission provide guidance for the necessary shift, which consists of increasing consumption of plant-based foods and substantially reducing consumption of animal source foods. Research has shown that this shift will reduce environmental effects and improve health outcomes. This concerted commitment can be achieved by investment in public health information and sustainability education, and improved coordination between departments of health and environment.

(2) Re-orient agricultural priorities from producing high quantities of food to producing healthy food. Production should focus on a diverse range of nutritious foods from biodiversity-enhancing food production systems rather than increased volume of a few crops, most of which are used for animal production.

(3) Sustainably intensify food production to increase high-quality output. The current global food system is unsustainable and requires an agricultural revolution that is based on sustainable intensification and driven by sustainability and system innovation. This change would entail reducing yield gaps on cropland, radical improvements in the efficiency of fertiliser and water use, recycling phosphorus, redistributing global use of nitrogen and phosphorus, implementing climate mitigation options, including changes in crop and feed management, and enhancing biodiversity within agricultural systems.

(4) Strong and coordinated governance of land and oceans. Such governance includes implementing a zero-expansion policy of new agricultural land into natural ecosystems and species-rich forests, management policies aimed at restoring and re-foresting degraded land, establishing mechanisms of international land-use governance, and adopting a Half Earth strategy for biodiversity conservation to safeguard resilience and productivity in food production. The world’s oceans need to be effectively managed to ensure that fisheries do not negatively affect ecosystems, fish stocks are used responsibly, and global aquaculture production is expanded sustainably given its effect on and linkage to both land and ocean ecosystems.

(5) At least halve food losses and waste, in line with global sustainable development goals. Substantially reducing the amount of food lost and wasted across the food supply chain, from production to consumption, is essential for the global food system to stay within its safe operating space. Technological solutions will need to be applied along the food supply chain and public policies implemented to achieve a 50% reduction in food loss and waste.

An opportunity exists to integrate food systems into international, national, and business policy frameworks aiming for improved human health and environmental sustainability. Establishing clear, scientific targets to guide food system transformation is an important step in realizing this opportunity.


  1. Unhealthy and unsustainably produced food poses a global risk to people and the planet. More than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and morbidity. Moreover, global food production is the largest pressure caused by humans on Earth, threatening local ecosystems and the stability of the Earth system.
  2. Current dietary trends, combined with projected population growth to about 10 billion by 2050, will exacerbate risks to people and planet. The global burden of non-communicable diseases is predicted to worsen and the effects of food production on greenhouse-gas emissions, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, biodiversity loss, and water and land use will reduce the stability of the Earth system.
  3. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is necessary to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, and scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production are needed to guide a Great Food Transformation.
  4. Healthy diets have an appropriate caloric intake and consist of a diversity of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal source foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and small amounts of refined grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars.
  5. Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts, including a greater than 50% reduction in global consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and a greater than 100% increase in consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. However, the changes needed differ greatly by region.
  6. Dietary changes from current diets to healthy diets are likely to substantially benefit human health, averting about 10.8–11.6 million deaths per year, a reduction of 19,0–23.6%.
  7. With food production causing major global environmental risks, sustainable food production needs to operate within the safe operating space for food systems at all scales on Earth. Therefore, sustainable food production for about 10 billion people should use no additional land, safeguard existing biodiversity, reduce consumptive water use and manage water responsibly, substantially reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, produce zero carbon dioxide emissions, and cause no further increase in methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
  8. Transformation to sustainable food production by 2050 will require at least a 75% reduction of yield gaps, global redistribution of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer use, recycling of phosphorus, radical improvements in efficiency of fertilizer and water use, rapid implementation of agricultural mitigation options to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, adoption of land management practices that shift agriculture from a carbon source to sink, and a fundamental shift in production priorities.
  9. The scientific targets for healthy diets from sustainable food systems are intertwined with all UN Sustainable Development Goals. For example, achieving these targets will depend on providing high-quality primary health care that integrates family planning and education on healthy diets. These targets and the Sustainable Development Goals on freshwater, climate, land, oceans, and biodiversity will be achieved through strong commitment to global partnerships and actions.
  10. Achieving healthy diets from sustainable food systems for everyone will require substantial shifts towards healthy dietary patterns, large reductions in food losses and waste, and major improvements in food production practices. This universal goal for all humans is within reach but will require adoption of scientific targets by all sectors to stimulate a range of actions from individuals and organisations working in all sectors and at all scales.

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