The history of the EAT-Lancet Commission
You may have guessed the EAT-Lancet Report was written by the EAT-Lancet Commission. In 2019, the Commission on Food, Planet, and Health brought together 37 world-leading scientists to discuss this very pressing question:
“Can we feed a future population of 10 billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries?”
The answer is not straightforward. Attempting to reconcile population growth with genuinely sustainable food production is no mean feat. However, the Commission concluded that yes, it is possible. But not without changing consumer habits, transforming food production, and reducing food waste.
The EAT-Lancet Commission says, "Food is the single strongest lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.” They establish a global food carbon budget within which food systems can safely operate. Keeping within this budget will enable food systems to support a stable and resilient planet while feeding a healthy diet to approximately 10 billion people (the estimated global population in 2050). Throughout the report, they go on to define what a healthy and sustainable diet could look like - coining the definition for a “planetary health diet.”
They also outline how the food industry can help accelerate the transformation of the food system towards it
What is the EAT-Lancet Commission’s global food carbon budget?
Well, before we explain this, you need to know about the planetary boundaries. What is a planetary boundary?
The planetary boundaries framework was established in 2009 by a group of 28 scientists, who defined a set of nine planetary processes within which “humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come”. Crossing these boundaries risks irreversible or potentially catastrophic environmental changes.
The EAT-Lancet report reviews all nine of these boundaries in the context of the global food system and quantifies the feasible limits for a safe operating space.
At present, Foodsteps is focusing on the planetary boundary for climate change. However, our food system impacts all of these boundaries, and it is vital the earth stays within all of them.
What is the climate change boundary?
The EAT-Lancet global carbon food budget is 5 gigatonnes CO2e per year. (That’s the same as the annual heating of 2.14 billion average UK homes). This figure aligns with the Paris Agreement pledge to keep global warming well below 2°C (aiming for 1.5°C).
In estimating this boundary, the EAT-Lancet Commission assumes that energy will be decarbonised globally by 2050 and that we will transition to sustainable food production (pre-farm-gate), meaning land use becomes a net carbon sink - rather than a net source (it absorbs more than it produces). The boundary sets the limit for non-CO2 greenhouse gases (e.g., methane, nitrous oxide) necessary for healthy diets worldwide while fulfilling the Paris Agreement's climate goals.
What are the EAT-Lancet recommendations for achieving global healthy diets and sustainable food production?
Many of the recommendations in the EAT-Lancet report involve policy intervention, placing the onus on governments to enact change. It’s worth keeping astride of these interventions, given they’ll significantly impact food businesses.
1) Seek international and national commitment to shift toward healthy diets.
The report advocates for more than doubling global consumption of “healthy” foods, like fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, and more than halving consumption of “less healthy” foods, like added sugars and red meats. The report also recommends policy actions, including improving access to healthy foods and public health information.
2) Reorient agricultural priorities from producing high quantities of food to producing healthy food.
As well as encouraging dietary shifts, the report suggests that agricultural and marine policies need “reorienting” to help promote a variety of nutritious foods that support biodiversity - instead of focusing on just a few crops. Did you know that just 15 plants, including rice, maize and wheat, currently comprise 90% of the world’s food energy intake?
3) Sustainably intensify food production to increase high-quality output.
The report asserts that the global food system is in need of an “agricultural revolution”, mainly if it is to become a net carbon sink from 2040. Sustainable intensification requires innovation towards increased agricultural yields without causing additional environmental impacts, such as by taking up less land and enhancing biodiversity within agricultural systems, as well as improving fertiliser and water use efficiency.
4) Strong and coordinated governance of land and oceans.
To ensure the global population is fed healthy diets without exceeding planetary boundaries, the report proposes meeting demand for food using spaces already designated for agricultural (and aquacultural) use. This might involve implementing a zero-expansion policy into natural ecosystems and, more broadly, establishing land use governance mechanisms.
5) At least halve food losses and waste, in line with the UN SDG.
The report identifies significant waste reduction as “essential” for food systems to stay within a safe operating space. This might happen on-farm, through improvements to post-harvest infrastructure, as well as throughout the supply chain during transport, processing and packing.
How does we use the report in our methodology?
Foodsteps bases our food carbon categorisation (i.e. our A to E rating system) on the EAT-Lancet report, ensuring that any foods labelled as ‘Very Low’ carbon do, in fact, stay within the planetary boundary for climate change.
How did we adapt the EAT-Lancet global food carbon budget?
The climate change boundary for the global food system, established by the EAT-Lancet report, is calculated up to the farm-gate. We chose to extend this all the way to waste to account for the entire life-cycle of food, as the impact of our food doesn’t just stop at the farmgate.
This updated global food carbon budget is then divided by both the global population and the number of days in a year to find the daily per capita food carbon allowance (kg CO2e per day), affording equal planetary space to each global citizen.
To find the daily carbon intensity allowance (kg CO2e per kilo), we divided the daily per capita food carbon allowance by the average daily weight of food consumption. This is based on food group weights provided by the EAT-Lancet Commission, designed to meet both nutritional and environmental needs.
All foods with a carbon intensity of 1.85 kg CO2e per kilo and below are defined by Foodsteps as ‘Very Low’ carbon. See our blog on the Foodsteps Planetary Benchmark for more information on why we chose this metric.
The EAT-Lancet report provides an incredibly useful framework for meeting human and planetary needs for a sustainable global food system. The biggest question for us to ask ourselves is, if this report came out in 2019, why isn’t the public more aware of it? And what can be done by governments and industry leaders to democratise this valuable information? One solution is helping food companies across the industry understand and implement this into their environmental targets.