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COMMENTARY: Food for a healthy planet and healthy people

COMMENTARY: Agricultural land covers 40 per cent of the global land mass and food production accounts for up to 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Now more than ever, we have to pay attention to how we eat in order to keep ourselves and our planet healthy.

Agricultural land covers 40 per cent of the global land mass and food production accounts for up to 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Now more than ever, we have to pay attention to how we eat in order to keep ourselves and our planet healthy.

Agriculture continues to encroach into forests and other carbon rich ecosystems and is the No. 1 reason for biodiversity loss. Fertilization practices used in agriculture causes nitrogen and phosphorus loss into waterways triggering undesirable ecosystem changes. Furthermore, potent greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are released into the atmosphere through rice farming and fermentation in the guts of livestock.

The Canadian federal government just completed consultations on a target of 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases from fertilizer use. While this particular target and its implications for food production and food security has attracted controversy, it is indisputable that Canada needs a comprehensive food strategy that optimizes both human and planetary health.

Both over-nutrition and under-nutrition are global health problems. More than two billion adults in the world are classified as obese or overweight, while at the same time, adults and children face starvation and nutritional deficiencies in some parts of the world.

We have long known that overconsumption of calories, red meat and sugars in the western diet causes diabetes, cancer and heart disease. If the entire global population adopted the western diet, the demand for meat and dairy will also cause food production to exceed environmental boundaries on land use, freshwater use and greenhouse gas emissions.

To address both these issues, the EAT-Lancet report – written by 37 leading scientists from around the globe – recommends a mostly plant-based diet in order to optimize human health and environmental sustainability. The report calls for an emphasis on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes and recommends meat and dairy in much smaller proportions.

The authors of the report predict if there was global uptake of their recommendations, approximately 11 million premature adult deaths – or one-in-five – could be prevented annually. While this would mean significant progress in population health, changing our eating patterns will not be enough to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change. To limit average global temperature rise to 1.5 Celsius, we will also need to change the way we farm.

Farmers have long been stewards of the land and have a crucial role to play in leading us in healthy and sustainable food production. We will need to support uptake of regenerative farming practices in larger numbers. These practices regenerate the soil for future use while increasing the nutrition density of foods and include methods such as reduced or no-till farming, planting cover crops, composting, and integrating animals into farms that grow plant crops. Regenerative practices allow farmers to reap the benefits of a healthier environment as well as increased crop health and productivity. 

Other policies we need to adopt include stopping the expansion of farmland into carbon rich natural areas and focusing on improving productivity of existing agricultural lands. Precision farming techniques such as planting the right crop for the right environment and optimizing the timing and location for water and nutrient use can increase crop yields while minimizing nitrogen and phosphorus run-off in water and reducing water use.

Governments have a key role to play in reorienting food systems. It is laudable the most recent version of Canada’s Food Guide released in 2019 considers the health of the planet in its recommendations and is aligned with the EAT-Lancet report.

We now need policies to help Canadians adopt these guidelines. Taxation of unhealthy foods high in sugars or are highly processed, and subsidies for healthy, sustainable foods are needed.  More investment into the farming of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts will match food production levels to the largely plant-based diet that is recommended.

We also need to call on our governments to implement policies that reduce food waste because discarded food contributes up to 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Such policies can include financial support for food rescue agencies as implemented by the Australian government, legislated composting for businesses generating organic waste as done in France or a ban on food retailers throwing away good quality food as practiced in Italy.

As citizens we need to do our part as well to promote our own health and that of the planet. Following the EAT-Lancet diet for planetary health includes filling half our plates with fruits and vegetables, getting a quarter of calories from whole grain foods and reducing our consumption of fish and poultry to about two servings a week, our dairy consumption to the equivalent of one cup of milk per day and our red meat consumption to one serving a week. Choosing to be vegetarian or vegan, if that fits with cultural and personal values, will allow us to surpass the recommendations.

How we eat shapes both our own health and that of our life-sustaining planet. It is worth putting thought and effort into our everyday meals and our advocacy efforts with decision-makers. Bon appétit.

Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in the Bow Valley. Her commentaries appear in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on the third Thursday of each month. For more articles like this, visit