Millions of People Will Starve Unless We Drastically Change Our Diets | Opinion

As we make dinner or stroll the supermarket aisles or scan a menu, many of us are thinking about our health. But far fewer of us will pause to consider how the food we eat impacts the environment that we depend on—even the climate that makes this planet livable. For six years, I had the honor of serving in the White House as the chef for the Obama family and the head of the administration's food policy work. That experience taught me that while our food system presents extraordinary challenges, it also offers us extraordinary opportunities.

Food, after all, sits squarely at the crossroads of public health and environmental sustainability. At an alarming level, the food production systems that have developed over the past century are serving both very poorly. Though the world is producing more food today than ever, still more than 800 million people are going hungry. At the same time, roughly two billion others are either overweight or obese because their diets consist of calorie-rich but nutrient-deficient food, which causes a host of health problems and diseases.

Meanwhile, the same systems that produce staggering volumes of low nutrient, crops and cheap red meat are wreaking havoc on our air, our water and our soil. As it stands, food production is the single largest driver of environmental change worldwide, using 70 percent of all freshwater and producing nearly 30 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. And agricultural emissions are rapidly increasing—with experts predicting agriculture becoming the number one driver of greenhouse gas emissions in our lifetimes. Agriculture alone has claimed nearly 40 percent of all the planet's land, wiping out critical habitats and local ecosystems, causing a loss of biodiversity so great that we're now living through the Sixth Great Extinction.

Climate change will make all of this dramatically worse. But we can't truly begin to tackle our most urgent environmental concerns without addressing the food we eat.

Fortunately, we are coming to understand that the same shifts we make to our diets to improve our health also happen to lessen the burden that our food systems bear on our environment. A new report from the EAT Foundation and the Lancet Medical Journal provides comprehensive science based analysis about how we can fix our diet by more efficiently producing and delivering healthier, climate-smart food.

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Food production is the single largest driver of environmental change worldwide, using 70 percent of all freshwater and producing nearly 30 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. iStock

To meet health and emissions targets outlined by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we will need to cut in half our consumption of unhealthy foods worldwide. This means halving our intake of red meat for example, which has not only has numerous health consequences but has a massive carbon footprint. At the same time we need to double our intake of healthy foods including nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Doing so would not only avoid at least six million (and as many as 11 million) premature deaths every year from health problems like diabetes and heart disease, it will also significantly reduce emissions from our food system.

Ideally, the EAT-Lancet report will help inform national health guidelines, as well as agriculture policy—both of which are important levers of governmental power in reforming the food system. We can't afford not to put the health of today's eaters, and future generations ability to sustain themselves, at the center of our policies. But after spending years working on food policy in Washington, I know well the importance and the limitations of government guidance on what we eat.

The food that will appear on supermarket shelves and menus in the future will arrive there based on cultural demands, combined with investments that companies make. Our culture is changing, but given the challenges we face, food companies and investors are dramatically underinvesting in the food system of the future.

There's a role for all of us to play here. The only way investors and companies will focus on reducing the cost of nutritious foods—food that also has a lower environmental impact—is if we exert pressure on the food system from our own dinner tables and in restaurants and school cafeterias.

In my years cooking and learning about food cultures all around the world, I've learned that there is no such thing as fixed, traditional food. Even within strong culinary traditions, food is always evolving, whether by choice or circumstance. What we're realizing now, and what the EAT-Lancet report clearly shows, are the ways that our food traditions must to evolve to ensure that people today and in the future have enough nutritious food to eat, and a safe, stable planet on which to enjoy it.

Sam Kass is the former White House Chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition in the Obama administration.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​

Millions of People Will Starve Unless We Drastically Change Our Diets | Opinion | Opinion
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