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Jess Fanzo on Sustainable Diets: It’s Not Just a Fantasy

By: Christine Grillo

BALTIMORE - October 14, 2020. Last year, a commission of 37 scientists from around the world published a report that described a “planetary health diet.” According to the report, the diet could feed 10 billion people, while also operating within planetary boundaries—a healthy diet that would not exacerbate climate change. Jess Fanzo, one of the scientists involved in the EAT-Lancet Commission, says that the diet was intended to be a vision only, not a plan.

“It was lofty,” says Fanzo, who directs the Johns Hopkins Global Food Ethics and Policy Program and is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Global Food Policy and Ethics at the Berman Institute of Bioethics. The report did not put price tags on anything, or address inequities in nutrition, or specify where the burden of change should lie.

“People use the word ‘road map,’” to describe the report Fanzo says, “but the diet referenced wasn’t intended to be a road map.”

The report’s reference diet was intended to set targets for both nutrition and planetary health, and most importantly, to make food systems experts and climate experts talk to each other. Fulfilling its mission, the report has inspired a lot of conversation and stirred up some debate. It got scientists asking questions about planetary boundaries that we don’t want to cross, and how that affects food systems. For example, how much wild land can we tolerate being converted to crop land? How much fresh water can we bear to use for growing food? How much biodiversity loss is acceptable, and when do we cross the line?

Some of the biggest criticisms focused on how unaffordable the diet would be for half the world, and authors from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) published research showing that achieving an adequate, healthy diet in most low- and middle-income countries would require a substantial increase in greenhouse gas emissions and water use. Some critics pushed back because the report seemed to position a vegan diet as the holy grail, while some countries rely on animal source food for adequate nutrition. If the vision were to become reality, food animal production would be nearly eliminated.

“The findings didn’t sit well with the livestock sector,” says Fanzo. “But the diet got policymakers thinking about interconnectedness, thinking about how much will it cost? What policies would it take?”

This year, the global coronavirus pandemic has brought even more attention to inequity and the unaffordability of food. Ten months into the crisis, we still haven’t seen the worst.

“The food supply is moving again, but can people afford food?,” she asks. “A year from now is when we’ll really see the freefall of the global economy. What we’re seeing now is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.”

Climate change continues to prove itself a real and tangible threat, and climate change and food systems are a two-way street, she says. “Climate change destabilizes earth systems, which disrupts food systems, but food systems also contribute to environmental degradation. What do we do about that?”

She doesn’t think there’s a huge window to act anymore, and we could be headed for a catastrophe in which earth systems take over, and humans are no longer able to make a difference. Everyone has to work together to take action—but with the looming economic crisis, will the nations of the world come together and do what needs to be done? The United Nations Food Summit, which will take place in October 2021, will probably be consumed with the issue of food affordability.

One of Fanzo’s current projects, in collaboration with several other partners, is a food systems dashboard. With the dashboard, the goal is to make the data we have more digestible, more accessible to policymakers and people who can make decisions that affect what kind of food is produced and what kind of food is eaten.

“We have more knowledge than ever before,” says Fanzo, “so why haven’t we seen an impact when we know so much?”

She believes that despite how much we know, we still need more data—the right kind of data, which are harder to come by. We still don’t really know what people are eating around the world, why they make the choices they do, and where they get their food from. There’s a section of the food systems dashboard called “Consumer Behavior,” which is broken into four sections—acquisition, preparation, meal practices, and storage—for which no data are offered at all. “No indicator available” is what appears when trying to get information in that section, and Fanzo hopes that this will send a message about our data gaps and the kinds of research we need to fund. CLF’s director, Martin Bloem, worked with Fanzo on an article in Nature Food describing how to use a food system framework for positive change.

“What you don’t know, you can’t manage,” she says. If we had the data, and could make them accessible to policymakers, and they might be inspired to do more effective campaigns and educational programs for consumers. We might be able to provide better information for doctors to be able to counsel patients, and decision makers might change the architecture of food environments.

The other problem with data, aside from the gaps, is the steady undermining of research in the current political climate. “It’s openly disregarded,” says Fanzo. How can we deal with that? Fanzo doesn’t have a good solution yet.

As for interventions that can help people eat healthier diets that don’t degrade the planet, should we focus on changing the behavior of consumers, or on changing the behavior of producers?

“Supply and demand are very nuanced, they both shape each other,” says Fanzo. “But assuming that consumers will make the right choice is just not true. Governments need to help people make easy, good choices.”

One way governments can do that is by keeping industry players in check. Industry will always use the enormous amounts of money at their disposal to fight regulations, and it’s almost impossible for governments to compete with that kind of power. But mechanisms like taxes on soda seem to be yielding positive results, as are warning labels on food packages. In Chile and Mexico, for example, foods high in sugar, salt, and fat have a black, octagonal warning label. In Chile, these foods can’t be sold in schools. In reaction to the label, industries reformulate their products to have less sugar, salt, and fat. Fanzo says that the public health experts who advocated for these labels suffered through death threats and had their science discredited—much like what we saw with the tobacco industry decades ago, and climate scientists today.

On the production side of things, she says, there’s a lot of positive momentum. Agroecology and regenerative agriculture are gaining traction. Producers discuss how to intensify—grow more food on the same lad—sustainably, and there are technologies that can help. Better seeds and integrated pest management hold a lot of promise, for example.

“There’s a lot of climate-friendly technology where we can be more sustainable right now, but the incentives are not there,” says Fanzo. “It’s not just a fantasy. It’s possible.”

For more perspective on food systems, read the CLF Global Thought Leaders Series.

Illustration by Mike Milli, 2020.

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