WWF Responds to EAT-Lancet Report on Global Diets

Guest Commentary by Jason Clay, World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

Earth is home to 7.5 billion people. Feeding us comes at a cost – producing food is now the single biggest driver of environmental degradation. And, that is before we have more, wealthier people who consume differently.

But the choice isn’t between providing for humanity or protecting the planet. In some places like temperate grasslands, communities that depend on livestock are the main reason these ecosystems persist. In the Northern Great Plains that straddle the U.S. and Canada, for example, well-managed grazing systems protect native grasslands, enhance soil quality, provide critical wildlife habitat, filter water and sequester carbon. They also produce food, turning grass into protein, and support livelihoods.

We need solutions to fix food. Today, agriculture is responsible for up to 25 percent of human GHG emissions. It is already responsible for 70 percent of biodiversity loss and is projected to drive the loss of another 70 percent of what’s left on land. Efforts to feed people have pushed the Earth beyond key “planetary boundaries” critical for the survival of all species — including humans. By 2050, the global population will be more than 9 billion and demand for food will increase.

Animal protein consumption alone is forecast to increase by 70 percent over 2010 levels. In developing countries, demand will double. The EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems offers a possible solution: a new “planetary health diet” for the world that advocates increased fruits, nuts, vegetables and plant-based protein, less meat, and a smaller ecological footprint. While dietary shifts are necessary for the health of people and the planet, there is nothing simple or singular about them.

First, an ideal diet for one may be inaccessible, culturally unacceptable or even detrimental to another. While half the world’s population consumes 50 percent more protein than they need, more than 800 million have less than they need and 128 million in 51 countries are stunted and face nutrient deficits. And for many cultures — from Africa to Uzbekistan and to ranchers in Australia, Brazil or the U.S. — livestock are not just a way of life, they are family and community traditions passed from one generation to the next. They are “banks,” a family’s wealth.

Second, switching from animal proteins to other proteins is not a panacea — for people or nature. Not all proteins are equal—equally nutritious or impactful. All food production has impacts. We need to avoid top-down assumptions about shifting between food groups, particularly when calculating global need. Proteins like seafood, tree nuts, milk and soy or other pulses all come with potential negative environmental impacts. More than 90 percent of marine stocks are fished at or beyond capacity. Poorly managed aquaculture can be unsustainable too. Almonds, and all tree nuts, take enormous amounts of water and will be hard to adapt to shifting weather conditions. Milk production has high methane and manure emissions and requires feed that has its own impacts. Soy and pulses, which have increasing importance in our diets through feed and alternative protein products, are the second largest driver of deforestation and grassland conversion globally.

The good news: shifting diets isn’t the only way to change our food system, it’s just a piece of the equation. We also need a dramatic reduction in food loss and waste and major improvements in how we produce food. We know that we can reduce the impacts of animal and plant protein production by 50 percent. We think this can happen by 2030 in the U.S.

Producers are already doing it. WWF and others work with row crop producers in the Midwest and ranchers in the Northern Great Plains to encourage more sustainable production practices. They have already measurably reduced CO2e emissions per gram of protein. But there is room for improvement: markets that reward more sustainably ranched beef could incentivize ranchers to conserve natural habitats and biodiversity, reduce GHG emissions and protect water sources. Avoiding grassland and forest conversion is critical to both reducing GHG emissions in the U.S and freezing the footprint of food.

We face a difficult reality: today’s global food system is not sustainable. Fixing it is a complex problem. There is no silver bullet or single diet. People need information to make informed choices. But with 7.5 billion food experts on the planet we can be assured that those choices will vary considerably. Dietary choices are personal, and people should care about their health. WWF’s goal is that all the food on the shelf is produced more sustainably. We should take the environment out of the equation.

No single actor, or publication, will make the global food system more sustainable. That is all our jobs. Together ranchers and farmers, the private sector, consumers, governments and researchers can create a food system that ensures a stable, healthy future for both people and nature.


Jason Clay serves WWF-US as Senior Vice President, Food & Markets and Executive Director, Markets Institute. 

Jason gets things done on a global scale. His ideas are changing the way governments, foundations, researchers, and NGOs identify and address risks and opportunities for their work. He brings people together to improve environmentally sensitive practices in agriculture and aquaculture. Jason’s goal is to create global standards for producing and using raw materials, particularly in terms of carbon and water. He has convened industry roundtables of retailers, buyers, producers and environmentalists to reduce the key impacts of producing soy, cotton, sugarcane, salmon, shrimp, mollusks, catfish and tilapia. “We now have 10 to 25 percent of global production and buyers sitting at the table for each commodity.”

Jason ran a family farm, taught at Harvard and Yale, worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and spent more than 25 years working with human rights and environmental organizations before joining WWF in 1999. His favorite flavor of ice cream is Ben & Jerry’s Rainforest Crunch, which he helped create —with sustainably harvested ingredients—after meeting “Ben” at a fundraiser featuring the Grateful Dead.

Photo: © WWF-US / Emily Vandenbosch


Trust In Food’s Conservation Op-Ed series reflects thought leadership about the promotion and scaling of conservation agriculture . The opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Trust In Food or its partners. To submit an editorial for consideration, email Drew Slattery at dslattery@farmjournal.com.