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The Eat-Lancet Commission Report: Addressing The Research-Action Gap

The EAT-Lancet Commission Report on sustainable diets is a welcome contribution towards the debate on healthy and sustainable food systems. This is the easy part. The real challenge comes in addressing the research-action gap, turning evidence into action which really benefits the poorest in society.

I welcome the release of set of the EAT-Lancet Commission Report on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems and the set of science-based guidelines which it contains. I first started working on sustainable diets 10 years ago, working with a team at WWF-UK developing a concept called ‘LiveWell’. At this time, when the concept of sustainable diets was in its infancy, our work was met by a considerable amount of scepticism, both within parts of WWFs own international network and externally (we were criticised by parts of the Livestock sector for advocating the need to reduce total quantities of livestock consumed and by some within the vegan community for advocating a the less but better meat approach). Thankfully, a lot has changed in the intervening years with a now   widespread recognition that diets globally need to change if we are to address the challenges of sustainability, obesity and mal-nutrition. The EAT-Lancet Commission report reaffirms many of our early analysis, that it is possible to feed a growing global population, healthy and nutritious foods within planetary boundaries.

Whilst the reports overall analysis is sound, I do sound a note of caution on three issues which think the report under-plays:

  • The report focusses on the need for technological innovation and sustainable intensification. However it underplays the potential role regenerative agriculture, can play in regenerating soil health, biodiversity and livelihoods, of which more extensive pasture based livestock systems will play a part.
  • Whilst focussing on a need to reduce consumption of red meats, it tends to underplay the need for equivalent reductions in white meats (Poultry and pork). We live in a world where for every human on the planet there are now 3 chickens (some 21 billion), consuming soya and other grains, using land which could be providing food-stuffs for humans.
  • The issue of power and control of our food system is also a significant missing piece of the jigsaw. The reliance on 5-10 globally traded commodities for 80% of all calories consumed, in the hands of a few key industry players is one we can’t ignore. It is such a structural barrier to truly sustainable food systems/diets, that empowering and reconnecting citizens and the poorest in society, has to be an important ingredient for change. Diversity is key here.

Despite this, the core messages of eating more fruits, vegetables, nuts, pulses and legumes, reducing waste, with the potential of preventing up to 11.6 million premature food-related deaths are all good. So how does this happen in reality?

In many ways producing a report, three years in the making and involving 37 scientists and other experts is the easy part. The real challenge comes when addressing, what I would call, the research-action gap. The real barrier is taking any body of research and turning it into tangible actions, or the Great Food Transformation, the report refers to. The last five years have been littered with great reports, with a series of recommendations for governments (and other stakeholders) but with little political will to act.  The reports Commissioners really need to think carefully about this. There is a real danger, that unless a broad range of stakeholders are involved and engaged in developing solutions, that we see further polarisation and entrenchment of opinions, which will hinder not accelerate new forms of collaborations for the transformation that is required. This collaboration will need to include those most impacted by any change including Citizens (those most disadvantaged/impacted by our current food system), farmers, governments and business, ensuring that solutions are locally and culturally relevant.