Planetary Health Diet – major breakthrough in placing plants at the heart of a sustainable diet
19th March 2019
Recent headlines about a new ‘planetary diet’ have caught my attention, following the EAT-Lancet Commission report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.
As a practising herbalist, I welcome this widespread re-evaluation of our food culture and its impact on the environment, but what is needed to fully embrace a sustainable and nourishing diet goes beyond eating more vegetables and less meat.
The report advocates a universal ‘planet-friendly’ diet, based on increased consumption of healthy foods (plants, nuts, grains) and a decrease in consumption of unhealthy foods (red meat, sugar) to benefit health, whilst defining sustainable food systems that will minimise damage to our planet.
I agree with Tim Lang - City University and member of the commission - who says: “the food we eat and how we produce it, determine the health of people and the planet, and we are currently getting this completely wrong.”
I have always been a believer that the planet’s health and our own are inextricably linked. Food is at the heart of how we, as a society, relate to ourselves and to nature. But we seem to have a collective cultural ‘problem’ with food that boils down to two main areas; what we eat and how we farm.
In order to understand why we eat what we eat, it is important to also address how we eat. Apart from giving us the nutrition we need, eating food is a simple way to feel emotionally ‘full’, ‘comforted’ or even ‘loved’.
If any of these things are lacking in our lives, then we turn to food as support. I know I do. That is fine, as long as we have a healthy relationship with healthy foods most of the time.
You only have to look at our dependence on the NHS to see the loss of connection between us and our wellbeing, which could be nurtured daily through diet and other preventative practices such as mindfulness or simply going for a walk.
What we eat
When we look at what we eat, there is a problem. In the western world, we have an excess of poor-quality food, leading to micronutrient deficiency; defined as a lack of essential vitamins and minerals required for optimal health – some consumption levels have dropped 50% since the 1960s- such as Vitamin A and C, selenium and iron.
This can leave us overweight and undernourished – one study showed that 40% of the population suffers from Type B malnutrition (where you have enough macro nutrition but not enough micronutrients, vitamins and minerals).
To ensure that our nutritional and health needs are met, we really need to diversify our diet to include nature’s finest healing roots, fruits, shoots, seeds, grains, herbs, vegetables and much more.
Relying on foods grown in the earth, as these are, do more than just benefit our connection to our bodies, the connection goes deeper than this. Relying on the land to bring us these foods encourages us to have a greater appreciation for the soil and our awe-inspiring planet that provides us with this nourishment, inspiring us to look at how much we take without giving back.
How we farm
It was traditionally (and universally) understood by farmers that, in order to rear healthy plants, you have to put organic matter back into the soil.
When nutrients are applied in synthetic forms (i.e. nitrogen) – used in non-organic farming - they leak through the soil, polluting waterways and evaporate into the air, causing particulates and contributing to air pollution.
The Sustainable Food Trust has identified that for every £1 we spend on food in the UK there is a further 50p on-cost to society as a whole in medical costs (largely due to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, antibiotic resistance and bowel cancer) (1).
Because of our mono-crop culture growing the same species in the same fields, the nutritional balance has been disturbed over the last 50 years. This lack of nutrients available to the plants leaves us with a diet that also has an imbalance of nutrients (2). Resulting in our health and that of the environment becoming compromised.
There appear to be so many contradictions in the goal of cheap-nutritious-sustainable food with continued use of vast volumes of nitrogen and biocides. The comparison with organic agriculture and modern farming is a bit like athletes competing; if one’s on steroids, they have a short-term advantage yet may well suffer long-term health problems.
The use of nitrogen is that drugs – that needs lots of other drugs (herbicides and pesticides) to work. Organic farming is regenerative farming that can and should play a much larger part of this transformation to a healthier environment and society.
Having had the privilege of co-founding a mission-led business that places plants at its heart, I am delighted to see a major breakthrough in the perception that agro-ecological farming can feed the world as well as look after the planet.
Now, we need the government to act to support healthy farming, businesses to behave in a responsible way and actually make healthy food, and us all – as thoughtful citizens – to spend our hard-won earnings on organic, sustainable food that is good for us as well as the ecosystem.
Let’s support the Soil Association in their rallying cry: “This important report must be reflected immediately in government policy, including amending the draft Agriculture Bill to make public health and agro-ecological farming specific objectives, and ensuring adequate support is available for farmers to make the necessary transition.”