Trevor Hancock: Planning to feed a one-planet region

January 27, 2019. Times Colonists

The concept of a one-planet region is simple: We need to reduce our collective impact on the Earth so we — and others around the world — can live within the ecological and physical constraints of this one small planet we all share.

But at the same time, we want to maintain a high quality of life for all, both locally and globally.

When Jennie Moore and Cora Hallsworth determined the ecological footprint of Victoria and Saanich last year, they found, unsurprisingly, that we are consuming well above one planet’s worth of ecosystem goods and services. But what might have been surprising for many is that they found more than 40 per cent of our footprint is related to food; this compares with the 26 per cent of humanity’s overall global footprint that is related to food, according to a 2017 report from the Global Footprint Network.

The extent of the impact of our global food and agriculture system on the Earth is not widely appreciated. But a 2017 study by Michael Clark and David Tilman in Environmental Research Letters notes that agricultural activities are the source of between one-quarter and one-third of all greenhouse gases, occupy 40 per cent of Earth’s land surface and account for more than two-thirds of freshwater withdrawals, as well as being a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Moreover, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported in 2014 that 75 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is used for raising animals, and world average meat consumption per person doubled between 1961 and 2011. But meat production is a large contributor to global warming and other environmental problems, with beef being particularly problematic. A 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found beef production has a much larger impact — between five and 28 times as much, depending on the issue — than the average of dairy, poultry, pork and egg production.

In their study of the Victoria and Saanich footprints, Moore and Hallsworth found more than half our food footprint was due to fish, meat and eggs, and another 18 per cent was due to dairy production. So reducing our local footprint means changing our diet. Happily, a 2014 U.K. study found a low-meat diet results in only 65 per cent of the emissions resulting from a high-meat diet.

Two important reports that speak to the issue of food, health and the environment have come out this month. The first is from the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Since 2015, The Lancet — one of the world’s leading medical journals — has drawn attention to the concept of planetary health, because “far-reaching changes to the Earth’s natural systems represent a growing threat to human health.” The Lancet has produced reports on the health impacts of climate change, pollution — and now, diet.

Authored by 37 leading scientists from 16 countries, the report states “food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.” Their prescription is clear: To safeguard both planetary and human health, “global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50 per cent.”

The good news is that “a diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal-source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.” They estimate their diet could prevent about 11 million deaths a year, globally.

Now Health Canada has issued its revised Canada Food Guide, and while not focused on the environmental benefits, it concludes, on health grounds, that we should eat plenty of vegetables and fruits (about half our diet), choose whole-grain foods and eat protein foods — not just lean meat, chicken, fish and eggs, but nuts and seeds, lentils, tofu, yogurt and beans.

I have noted before that a good food policy would be to follow Michael Pollan’s strictures: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” If we are to shift to a one-planet region, we need a one-planet diet, and that means a low-animal-based and high-plant-based diet. The good news is we will be healthier for it, too.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.