Modern agricultural practices have been a threat to life on Earth and are a factor in virtually every growing environmental and health problem. Farmers 100 years ago would have laughed at such a thing happening, as agriculture is necessary for food production and, therefore, life. However, it is indisputable today we are drastically and negatively affecting air, soil and water.
Scientists are now calling for the definition of a new geological age, moving Earth from the Holocene era of stability into Anthropocene, marked by significant and permanent changes to the Earth from mankind. In the past decades, food production has focused on efficiency and lowering immediate costs.
This approach has been responsible for skyrocketing disease statistics and a faltering ecosystem struggling with rapidly reducing clean water supplies and soil unable to support plant life. Toxic agricultural chemicals are polluting the air and waterways, threatening the entire food chain and disrupting normal rainfall patterns.
Poorly Designed Food Production Negatively Impacts the Environment
Today’s large agrichemical businesses were designed to increase production and financial gains. While traditional farming sustained mankind for thousands of years, industrial farming has managed to create a series of unsustainable situations in less than 70 years. For instance, topsoil destruction and erosion are exacerbated by monocropping and tilling.
Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has warned at the current rate of topsoil degradation, all the world’s topsoil will be gone in less than 60 years.1
These changes can potentially create another dust bowl. In the 1930s farmers plowed the Southern Plains. After three consecutive drought years the area turned into an uninhabitable and unworkable dust bowl. Current research suggests modern agricultural methods will not protect us from a repeat of those devastating conditions.2
Bioethicist George Dvorsky3 believes a common expectation is a dust bowl would not occur since 30 percent of produce production is irrigated in the U.S., and corn is not planted in severely drought-stricken places. However, according to simulations, if the U.S. were to experience the same kind of drought today, we’d lose nearly 40 percent of our commodity crops.
Degradation of topsoil and industrial farming, which uses an estimated 80 percent of our freshwater supply,4 means much water is wasted as it washes through the soil and passes the plants’ root systems. In seeking efficiency, large-scale industrialized agricultural endeavors have created a reduction in diversity.
Monoculture farming significantly contributes to dietary changes promoting poor health in both humans and the soil. According to a report by the Royal Botanic Gardens in the U.K., one-fifth of all plants worldwide are threatened with extinction, primarily through the expansion of agriculture and monoculture farming.5
EAT-Lancet Commission Goals Are Far-Reaching, but Results Fall Short
In 2016, the Stockholm Resilience Centre,6 Lancet7 and EAT announced the EAT-Lansing Commission to investigate connections between nutrition, health and the ability of the planet to sustain the food supply. According to their site, EAT is:8,9
“[A] global, nonprofit startup dedicated to transforming our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption and novel partnerships … founded by the Stordalen Foundation, Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Wellcome Trust to catalyze a food system transformation.
To ensure success, we connect and partner across science, policy, business and civil society to achieve five urgent and radical transformations by 2050.”
The commission acknowledged food systems are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and users of freshwater, each leading to biodiversity loss and land-use changes, and triggering dead zones in lakes and coastal areas.
The commission’s goals were to bring together scientists from around the globe to reach a scientific consensus defining a healthy diet, a sustainable food system, how to achieve a healthy diet from a sustainable food system and the solutions and policies needed.10
To date the American Heart Association,11 American Diabetes Association12 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention13 do not have a solid consensus on what constitutes a healthy diet. However, many of their experts do acknowledge lowering carbohydrates and sugar intake, and increasing amounts of vegetables and healthy fats are important steps.
One of the initiatives of EAT is to bring together an “ambitious global business partnership” for a “systemic approach across the food system to drive industry change.” Their partners14 include Bayer, Cargill, DuPont, Kellogg’s and Syngenta, each with its own desire to maintain financial health through product promotion, including genetically engineered (GE) seeds, insecticides, pesticides and cereals.
EAT-Lancet Commission Promotes Vegetarian-Based Diet
The EAT-Lancet commission report published in the Lancet,15 includes broad recommendations to choose healthy, sustainable and delicious foods, cooking more at home, eating a diverse vegetarian diet and embracing plants as a source of protein.
In a recommendation to support regenerative farming practices, they single out industrial livestock agriculture as creating the greatest damage to the environment.16 The report falls just short of recommending a strict vegetarian diet, but states it appears feeding a growing planet population using animal sources is not sustainable.
As I’ve written many times in the past, industrial farming practices, whether livestock or plant-based, are not sustainable moving into the future, and reliable access to sufficient nutritious foods is severely threatened. However, the movement to regenerative practices and principles will certainly stop the forward motion of environmental damage and may reverse a portion.
The commission’s recommendations are supported by companies who supply GE seeds, toxic pesticides and insecticides and a broad range of cereals. Cereal products are often positioned in the same grocery aisle as the candy, likely related to the similar amounts of added sugar in the products. As noted by cochair Johan Rockström prior to the commission meeting:17
“The new commission will, for the first time, scientifically assess whether a global transformation to a food system delivering healthy diets from sustainable food systems to a growing world population is possible, and what implications it might have for attaining the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement.”
The stated goals of the commission were aimed at current trends and concerns over global rainfall and climate developments, with the hope to define a diet plan to balance nutrition, sustain the environment and reduce disease states around the globe. However, its recommendations will not support optimal health, and appear to have several loopholes.
Lack of Nutrition in EAT-Lancet Diet May Increase Your Risk of Disease
The report believes there are reasons to “be cheerful”18 as past examples of system change have resulted in better public health. They offer examples of “tobacco controls” to reduce lung cancer, and the move over the past 70 years to reduce or eliminate trans fats from the food supply — neither of which have successfully eliminated the problem. In the report, the authors state:19
“We quantitatively describe a universal healthy reference diet to provide a basis for estimating the health and environmental effects of adopting an alternative diet to standard current diets, many of which are high in unhealthy foods.”
According to an in-depth evaluation by Zoe Harcombe, Ph.D., nutritional researcher, author and public speaker, the report promotes a “healthy reference diet,” which has been called the EAT diet in media reports. In her analysis,20 Harcombe used the All Food Database developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to compare against the healthy reference diet.
The tool aggregated macro and micronutrients found in the different foods. Based on her analysis of a 2,500-calorie diet for an adult male, the reference diet promotes 51 percent macro-nutrients from carbohydrates, 35 percent from fat and 14 percent from proteins.
These recommendations are significantly different from those from other nutritional experts who recommend a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet in order to reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses. The reference diet is also slightly deficient in vitamin B12. Harcombe writes:21
“I would not mention this nutrient but for the comment in Table 1 that animal items can be replaced with plant protein options and these will not provide any B12. (There is an amusing error on page 16 of the 51-page report. It says ‘The only exception is vitamin B12 that is low in animal-based diets.’ I think they mean plant-based diets!)”
She also points out the diet is low in retinol, vitamin D, vitamin K and contains only 55 percent of the current calcium recommendations. The EAT diet also provides just 22 percent of the current sodium recommendation, which is already low. Additionally, it only provides 67 percent of the necessary potassium for optimal health.22
Recommendations for iron are slightly more severe. The EAT diet provides 88 percent of the recommended iron, but from plant sources. Your body absorbs heme iron from meat, poultry, seafood and fish better than it does for from plants. To accommodate the differences for vegetarians, the National Institutes of Health recommends:23
“The RDAs for vegetarians are 1.8 times higher than for people who eat meat. This is because heme iron from meat is more bioavailable than nonheme iron from plant-based foods, and meat, poultry, and seafood increase the absorption of nonheme iron.”
For optimal health, you also require a balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fats, coming as close to a 1-to-1 ratio as possible. Since your body cannot synthesize omega-3 fats, they must be obtained from your diet. However, the standard American diet is nearly devoid of this critical nutrient,24 while omega-6 fats are consumed in abundance.
It’s important to realize that most of the cellular health benefits are linked to the animal-based eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), not the plant-based alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). Authors in one study25 concluded U.S. adults do not meet the recommended levels for animal-based omega-3 fats.
Harcombe believes the new EAT diet is highly likely to be deficient in omega-3 as it contains nearly 350 calories of highly unsaturated vegetable oils, which have an unhealthy omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.26
Sustainable, Regenerative Farming Practices Actually Feed the Land
Regenerative and sustainable farming practices producing plant- and animal-based food products are already being used successfully. However, while regenerative agriculture is finally moving toward the forefront in farming practices, many traditional organics have been swallowed up by larger corporations. As a result, organic standards have been significantly watered down.
One case in point is the acceptance of hydroponics for organic certification. Regenerative agriculture is aimed at the protection and rebuilding of topsoil and ecological biodiversity. When foods are grown without soil, how can their operations improve soil health? The high price for substandard, cheap factory food is found in medical bills, chronic disease and increasing use of medications.
Instead, it’s time to see the soil as a living, functioning ecosystem. When farmers focus on what the soil needs to thrive, nutrients are automatically made available to plants, improving the plants’ nutrition.
Some of the benefits of regenerative methods include retention of moisture in the soil, which helps the plants to weather dry spells and drought conditions. Regenerative farming practices also include integrating livestock and other animals, including insects.
While the EAT-Lancet Commission views livestock as a large contributor to climate change problems, it’s important to realize this is only true when animals are raised on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). By allowing animals to graze freely, they become part of the solution — foraging, depositing manure and trampling vegetation into the ground.
This is all part of a natural life cycle that had maintained a stable ecosystem for centuries before industrial farming became normal practice. Animals raised in CAFOs also produce methane, destructive to the ozone layer. This happens as they’re raised on an unnatural diet of grains their body was not designed to eat. The diet alters the gut microbiome, promoting the production of methane.
Unfortunately, subsidies by the USDA Farm program for junk food ingredients has significantly impacted the ability of farmers to move toward regenerative farming practices. The farm program offers revenue insurance or crop insurance with strings attached, such as growing monocultures completely focused on yield without determining the impact on soil or the ecosystem at large.
While the EAT-Lancet Commission proposes regenerative farming practices, their recommendations promote strategies that support plant-based farming only, without committing to truly comprehensive regenerative farming principles or the removal of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.27
What Can You Do?
You can vote with your wallet by seeking out local farmers who use regenerative or biodynamic farming practices for your plant- and animal-based food products. If you currently have a large lawn and ornamental plants, consider transitioning to more edibles.
When I moved into the house I live in now, the landscaping was 100 percent ornamental. It’s probably only 10 to 15 percent ornamentals now, which serve a purpose by attracting pollinators. In my interview with Gabe Brown, a pioneer in regenerative land management, he says:
“Homeowners should be producing their own food. Even if you just have a patio. It’s amazing the amount of vegetables you can produce even in that setting. Why not do that? I’m going to show you our small garden, which produces enough vegetables for four families for the entire year. It doesn’t require a large area.”
Even college students living in a dormitory and those who rent can grow sunflower seed sprouts or microgreens, participate in a community garden if there’s one nearby, or grow a container garden.
Growing your own food may seem daunting at first, but it’s a practical approach to food security. If you grow a large portion of the fresh food you eat, you’ll have better quality food you know hasn’t been exposed to toxic chemicals.