The Second Lancet Report
On 16th January 2019 the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health released a report setting out “the first full scientific review of what constitutes a healthy diet from a sustainable food system, and what actions can support and speed up food system transformation.”
Their report, Food in the Anthropocene, considered nutritional targets and environmental sustainability and concluded that there is an urgent need to shift away from using and consuming animals and to plant-based production and consumption.
We commented on EAT-Lancet Food in the Anthropocene, welcoming its confirmation that for the sake of human health and to avoid the destruction of the environment upon which we all (human and non-human) depend, we must shift to plant-based: https://www.goveganscotland.com/single-post/2019/01/22/Our-Take-on-the-EAT-Lancet-Report-Time-to-Embrace-and-Plant-Based-Production-and-Consumption
On 27th January 2019 the Lancet published a second report, The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change. Full report: https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(18)32822-8.pdf
This Lancet Commission was initially set up to consider obesity but concluded that it must consider obesity alongside undernutrition and climate change, because these three pandemics “interact and affect human and planetary health, [and] need solutions that disrupt their common underlying societal and political drivers.” https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(19)30080-7/fulltext
Lancet will produce additional reports this year on nutrition, as “sustainable food systems that ensure health-promoting nutrition for all need urgent attention and will benefit people and planet alike.”
The conclusions of The Global Syndemic report were summarised as follows:
“The Commission urges a radical rethink of business models, food systems, civil society involvement, and national and international governance to address The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change. A holistic effort to reorient human systems to achieve better human and planetary health is our most important and urgent challenge.” https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/global-syndemic?fbclid=IwAR3YH8j6-MaOcfAS7OEoVSaOByaxjQuWi4GdgkWRH1UB0pzTZ9dY_tSfqvE
Highlights of Lancet 2
There is much in The Global Syndemic report that is positive, in terms of recognising that:
we must shift subsidies away from animal agriculture and to plant-based production
we must revise national food guides to take into account sustainability as well as nutritional requirements (Lancet 1 on Food in the Anthropocene considered both and concluded that we must shift towards plant-based eating)
we must stop looking at single issues in silos, instead bringing all the relevant strands together to overhaul our food system
we must recognise the role of the food industry in influencing government policy and people’s behaviour in relation to food.
drawing on international work to tackle the tobacco industry, we should set up a global framework to address the negative health and environmental effects of the food system. “The commonalities of tobacco, unhealthy food and beverage commodities, and fossil fuels lie principally in the damage they induce and the behaviours of the corporations that profit from them. They also share common deep drivers and the need for a multifaceted policy response. Thus, a Framework Convention on Food Systems (FCFS) would strengthen the ability of nations to act, reduce the power asymmetries created by Big Food, and ensure comprehensive action in line with the double-duty or triple-duty actions needed to address The Global Syndemic.”
the impact of animal agriculture in terms of greenhouse gases is much higher when we take into account land conversion (they use a figure of 29% which is much higher than the usual 14.5% used; although much lower than the 51% used elsewhere it at least recognises that the figure is considerably higher when we look at animal agriculture more broadly and not only at the gases produced by the animals we use and kill. For more information on the devastating impact of animal agriculture on the environment and global hunger see this talk by Dawn Moncrief of A Well Fed World given in Glasgow last year https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJ9fU0GjhRQ. On the 51% figure see e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpmTiHjUEBU&fbclid=IwAR0Ou6aiFUyL4zAL6KrYppo2VnqMt8Va1Ig3a5AjArLoyJ5hUKzp3TWuCcw&app=desktop). The figure they use for GHG from the animals themselves is 12-19%, acknowledging that a range is appropriate for these figures, as was also pointed out by the makers of Cowspiracy in 2014, https://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/).
we already have sufficient food to feed every human on the planet, but we reduce the available food massively because we feed it through animals
animal rights is an important driver for change
human behaviours are affected by the cultural environment, and so influenced by marketing etc. On the cultural environment affecting our eating, see e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/may/06/meatonomics-author-says-government-working-with-meat-and-dairy-industry-to-boost-consumption
international human rights can be used to advance “a right to wellbeing” encompassing the right to health, food and a healthy environment
we need to take action as individuals, communities (or civil society), and at a government level, both national and international
Unfortunately, the above reference to animal rights as a tool to promote plant-based eating is the only reference they make to the interests of the animals we are using. The report refers to animals as “livestock” and perpetuates the myth that using and killing living beings can be “an integral part of many well-functioning agroecological systems.”
They also don’t mention the stubborn refusal of many in the environmental community to face up to the connection between animal agriculture and the destruction of the environment and global hunger. For example, the Scottish Green Party has on the whole refused to engage this issue in any meaningful way to date. You only have to read the comments to any post on the Scottish Greens social media pages tackling this issue to find the same old defensive arguments for why we shouldn’t look at our own individual behaviour in relation to animal use and killing, vehemently rejecting the idea that a party concerned about human devastation of the environment should suggest that people change their individual behaviour in relation to animal use and killing, while at the same time strongly advocating that the party does just that in relation to fossil fuel usage. With the reports coming thick and fast and from the most credible sources we have to hope that it is only a matter of time before they are forced to address this.
The report also does not acknowledge that while the animal rights / vegan community is on the whole acknowledging the urgent need to shift to plant-based production and consumption for the sake of the environment, global hunger and human health, as moral reasons for us all to eat plant-based which intersect with the moral requirement not to use or kill non-human animals, the environmental community has not embraced animal rights in the same way (there are of course environmentalists who also reject speciesism, this is a statement about the environmental community as a whole).
Key Point: The Role of Business
A critical point highlighted in The Global Syndemic is that it is essential that we protect our policy-determining processes from “powerful commercial interests”.
It is only by keeping those with a commercial interest out of the policy decision-making process that we will produce eating guides that reflect the data, the science, what is best for us, the planet and animals, rather than what industry wants. We will likewise only achieve a redirection of the vast financial subsidies underpinning agriculture towards plant-based production, in the interests of our health, the environment, global hunger and animals, if we insulate the decision-making process from those with a vested interest in the status quo.
It is essential that we acknowledge the conflict of interest of the animal-use industries which, as the report says, “is at odds with public good and planetary health,” and so exclude them from decisions about our right to wellbeing, the future of the planet and animal rights.
The report notes that some efforts to include sustainability in national dietary guidelines have failed due to pressure from strong food industry lobbies. The meat, dairy and egg industries have incredible lobbying power in Scotland and the UK. They have vast resources, they have the ear of our Government and individual Ministers and MSP’s, they are invited to contribute to consultations on policy change, with their views given huge weight. They have a complete conflict of interest and should not be allowed to influence policy in this way. Moreover, we ought to be looking behind the CV’s of individuals who purport to speak objectively, to ensure that they are not in fact a voice-box for the meat or dairy industries.
Canada’s New Food Guide: A Case in Point
The new food guide just released in Canada is an illustration of what can be achieved when commercial interests are excluded from a policy review process.
Canada recognised the conflict of interest of those in the food industry and made real efforts to exclude them from the decision-making process:
"The Health Canada officials who created the new guide – many of them nutrition experts and researchers – did not meet with lobby groups. “In no way did we want to see a perceived influence, nor did we want industry to decide what the final food guide would look like."
"In the past, health advocates have said previous versions of the food guide showed the influence of powerful food lobbies, most notably those representing dairy, meat and juice. Health Canada’s attempts to insulate its officials this time did not stop industry groups from trying to shape the latest revision. But such efforts appear to have failed."
“We want to make sure Canadians have access to the best information with the food guide – the best information based on the best science out there, and science that’s not influenced by industry.”
The impact of refusing to allow industry to dictate policy is very clear from Canada's new food guide.
Most national food guides are based around groupings or categories of foods, with “meat” and dairy making up whole food groups and people encouraged to consume minimum amounts of these products. This structure means that to the extent that plant-based products are recognised at all, they are necessarily relegated to fringe “alternatives” to the real thing; meat alternatives, dairy alternatives, protein alternatives; they are not given the same standing. Far from being recommended, they are grudgingly included in acknowledgement of the dietetics associations confirming that a fully plant-based diet can give us everything we need.
This matters greatly, as many vegans know from experience. National food guides are referred to by doctors, schools, hospitals, as well as individuals. If the food guide holds out meat and dairy as food groups, encouraging consumption of minimum amounts, that is what will be generally focused upon and we can see the impact of that in day to day life.
What Canada has done is get rid of food groups altogether. This means there is no longer a “meat” or a dairy food group. https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/
Instead they recommend that people “have plenty of vegetables and fruits”, “choose wholegrain foods”, “make water your drink of choice” and “eat protein foods,” which could as well come from pulses, tofu, nuts and dairy- free products as from animal foods.
In fact, it goes further than this when we look beyond the picture of the food plate, as it recommends choosing protein sources that come from plants. https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/healthy-food-choices/ They go further still, pointing out that “Many of the well-studied healthy eating patterns include mostly plant-based foods,” and “eating plant-based foods regularly can mean eating more fibre and less saturated fat. This can have a positive effect on health, including a lowered risk of: cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes.”
Gone is the recommendation to consume two cups of milk a day, and the recommendation to “eat two servings of fish a week” which featured in the previous guide (“meat”, fish, dairy and eggs all still appear as optional foods, the change is that the recommended minimum consumption of them is gone). See the history of Canada’s food guides, dating back to the1940’s:
The new guide is not a vegan food pyramid, it’s still a mainstream eating guide that includes animal products as possible “choices”, but nevertheless it is a radical shift unlike any we’ve seen previously in national eating guides we’re aware of. The impact for vegans could be significant, in terms of accessing plant-based dietetics information and advice, obtaining appropriate advice from medical professionals and accessing suitable food in state entities and in the private sphere. The new guide could also encourage a significant shift to plant-based production and consumption more generally. This would be consistent with the Lancet recommendations and the other recent reports on climate change and food.
For a short video summary of the new guide see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lp4zWaLE_ik
UK Eating Guide
There has been some recent progress in terms of the UK eating guidelines, but we are now well behind Canada.
Until 2016 we followed the Eatwell Plate:
Although beans feature in the protein section, the emphasis is very much on animal sources of protein. The dairy section is substantial, taking up 15% of the plate, with a specific recommendation that people have 2-3 portions of dairy a day.
In 2016 the new Eatwell Guide was published, which was updated in 2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide.
This was a marked improvement on the previous guide, with food groups renamed to take into account environmental sustainability. The dairy food group has been reduced to 8% and a picture of a soya carton features as an alternative. However, the text of the guide recommends to “have some dairy or dairy alternatives” so plant products are still being presented as alternatives to the real deal and in practice we are still encouraged to consume a lot of dairy, with children given cartons of cow’s milk to drink in school. While beans and pulses have been given more status, the protein section carries a recommendation to eat two portions of fish weekly.
The written guidance that accompanies the diagram emphasises animal foods in a number of places. In addition to promoting the consumption of two portions of fish every week it encourages people to eat eggs, with no recommended limit and no mention of the high cholesterol in eggs. The emphasis on animal products in the guide means that those following a fully plant-based diet are viewed as going against the grain / following an alternative path / doing something that makes it more difficult to get the nutrition we need, when in fact a fully plant-based diet is recognised by all the leading dietetics associations as nutritionally adequate and more and more medical professionals are recommending whole-foods plant-based eating for health.
A very troubling statement in the guide is on "meat" and vitamin B12:
"[Meat is] one of the main sources of vitamin B12, an important vitamin which is only found in food from animals like meat and milk."
This is at best incomplete information and at worst highly misleading. B12 is made by microbes. In the past a lot of B12 was made in the soil and both people and animals would consume it when they ate plants, but now the soil is very depleted and so no-one, human or animal, gets enough in that way. Animals are given B12 supplements in their feed or through injections. People who obtain B12 from eating animal products are consuming supplemented B12 through someone else's body, whereas vegans /people eating fully plant-based are getting it from fortified foods or supplements. The bald statement that B12 is only found in animal-based foods must be one of the reasons vegans are so often challenged on the nutritional adequacy of their diet, including by medical professionals.
For the written guidance standing alongside the Eatwell diagram see: https://www.foodstandards.gov.scot/consumers/healthy-eating/eatwell
Scotland is currently consulting on the Good Food Nation bill, which presents the opportunity for the development of policies on health, the environment and agriculture that take account of the evidence as to what is best for us and the planet, without undue influence from those with a commercial interest in the status quo. To achieve that we must acknowledge that the food industries have a conflict of interest and insulate our government and parliament from lobbying efforts, as Canada did.
Unfortunately, the Scottish Government’s response to the first Lancet report is a clear indication that those with vested commercial interests continue to heavily influence government policy. That has to change. We must do better. https://blogs.gov.scot/rural-environment/2019/01/17/in-the-news-eat-lancet-report/
We have a moral obligation not to use or kill other sentient beings.
We have a moral obligation to reject animal agriculture because of its devastating impact on the environment and biodiversity.
We have a moral obligation to reject animal agriculture because of the key role it plays in world hunger.
These intersecting moral obligations mean that we should all be vegan.
These intersecting moral obligations mean we must switch to plant-based production and consumption.
We must act individually, at a community level and at a governmental level.