Drinking the plant-based diet kool-aid

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Sylvain CharleboisWhen the prestigious medical journal The Lancet published a 51-page report recently laying out a plan for a sustainable “planetary diet” that transforms how we eat and live, it made a big splash.

The group of 37 experts, all members of the EAT-Lancet Commission, were keen to recognize the urgent need to change our diets to protect the Earth. The commission was brought together by the Stockholm-based non-profit EAT, which works to change our global food system through science.

By 2050, the global population is expected to be roughly 10 billion and the commission argues that we will need to feed ourselves differently.

The report, which took three years to prepare, presents the ideal diet for the 21st century.

For meat eaters, it offers no reason to jump for joy. It suggests that one burger a week would be everyone’s red-meat quota. Some fish and chicken would also be part of the weekly intake of animal proteins.

Plant-based proteins fill out the rest of the prescribed diet. The report recommends nuts and a good helping of legumes every day in lieu of meat.

The diet has room for one glass of milk a day, 31 grams of sugar and about 50 grams of oils, such as olive oil.

These recommendations align with the approach to proteins in the newly-released Canada’s Food Guide. The guide sets out a new umbrella category that combines and de-emphasizes dairy and meat, while recommending more plant-based proteins.

But while the EAT-Lancet Commission report underscores the importance of global food security, it falls short on a few fronts.

It doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. Numerous studies have already pointed to the value of plant-based dieting and the reduction of food waste, another noble recommendation from the report.

And while the report is full of good intentions, the clinical fingerprints of the medical doctors, environmental scientists and nutritionists who put it together are all over the report.

There’s nothing wrong with like-minded individuals writing a dietary road map like a tedious monograph, but it makes their approach feel inauthentic to the layperson.

The report fails to recognize the human nature of society – and there’s nothing more human than food. Culinary traditions have influenced nations, clans and families for thousands of years. Food is intrinsically powerful – it can bring us together through meals and celebrations, or it can tear us apart through embargoes on foodstuffs. It’s a precious construct influenced by organizations, money, policies and all citizens of the world.

For those of us in the non-elite masses, there’s a significant difference between needs and wants. We all know we need to eat veggies and adopt healthy lifestyles, but many don’t for a variety of reasons, including access, affordability and convenience.

While vegetarian and vegan options have been declining in price, their still-high costs make them inaccessible to many. Regardless of whether it’s true, plant-based dieting is often seen as elitist. This needs to change but the report makes no mention of how.

Food diversity defines us all. Civilizations have been built on agricultural traditions that forge our varying tastes and kitchen talents. The report, however, shows little respect for communities where meat plays an integral part in the way of life.

It also doesn’t recognize that meat can be grown more sustainably, through efforts such as the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the emergence of cultured meat. Science is also pushing industry to think differently about how to produce meat. Notably, of the report’s 37 authors, few have backgrounds in economics, policy, or animal, plant or soil sciences.

In the past year alone, countless studies have beat the same plant-based drum. This report just adds to the noise. Reminding the world that our habits ought to change has merit but it can be overdone. The plant-based diet narrative is overpowering everything else, including remembering where we came from.

As we progress as a society and understand how we can feed more people on the planet, it’s critical that we also value our food heritage.

If we don’t, reports like this will be dismissed as haughty advocacy, even if they shouldn’t be.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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By Sylvain Charlebois

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois conducts research in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety. He has written four books and many peer-reviewed and scientific articles - over 500 during his career. His research has been featured in media outlets that include The Economist, New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Globe & Mail, National Post and Toronto Star.

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