In our Feed podcast episode “It’s not so simple”, Brent Loken, Global Lead Food Scientist at the WWF unpacked the 2020 report Bending the Curve: The restorative power of a planet-based diet. We discuss the paper’s methods, the role of dietary guidelines in catalysing change, and what is getting too much and too little attention in global food systems conversations. Here is a written version of the interview, which includes a selection of complimentary responses to the podcast conversation, lightly edited for style and clarity.
TABLE: Is there a clear path of how your different professional and research experiences led you to leading this WWF Bending the Curve report?
Brent: Yes and no. I’ve had an eclectic work history. I was a teacher and started and ran an international school with the goal of transforming how we teach our kids. I started an NGO in Borneo to protect rainforests and support local communities with the goal of how we can do conservation better. This experience ultimately led me to do a PhD and ultimately to working on food because what I realised from my time working in Borneo was that almost every issue that I was working on or that the local communities cared about was somehow connected to food. They didn’t always want to talk about orangutans, but they always wanted to talk about food, the health of their communities and jobs. I then realised that I could achieve the same conservation outcomes by focusing on food instead orangutans and clouded leopards. This led me to EAT and helping to lead the EAT-Lancet report [on healthy diets from sustainable food systems] and this ultimately led to this latest report. So all of these jumps ultimately did lead me to where I am today, especially my desire to help local communities or individual countries to make sense of global issues, targets, or goals and what these mean for them. This really lies at the heart of this report.
In the report you describe both the big picture with the global scale and dive into the country-specific contexts. I find the metaphor you use of a “global jigsaw puzzle of building a food system” very useful. Can you first describe the big picture and explain what you see as the key challenges we face as a society that are caused by or are related to the food system?
The big picture is that there are big global problems and most of these are driven by the food that we choose to eat and how we produce it. And we are now just waking up to the role that food plays. We’ve been able to produce lots and lots of food and this has had a lot of positive outcomes. People are living longer. Child mortality is down. People are generally more healthy. However, we are borrowing natural capital to produce this food and have been doing so for a long time and our debt has been growing and growing. In fact, if we were to continue eating and producing food as we do now but if we respected planetary boundaries then we would only be able to produce food for around 3.4 billion people. We are producing food for 7.5 billion people but this is causing huge greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, driving loss of species, depleting freshwater systems and making aquatic dead zones. This is destabilising the Earth system and our ability to thrive as a species. That’s a pretty key challenge from my perspective.
These are only the environmental impacts. I haven’t even touched on the health impacts of our food system and the fact that food is now the leading cause of deaths globally. And this health crisis has made the recent pandemic worse. A recent study has shown that obesity was responsible for 30% of excess hospitalisations in the US.
Before getting into the details of the report, can you first describe what a planet-based diet is? Why are you using a new term? And what foods specifically are detrimental to the planet?
A Planet-Based Diet is one that is good both for people and planet. It maximises health outcomes while reducing environmental impacts. I like to think of diet as a theme instead of focusing on individual foods. So, a planet-based diet places an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and plain water for thirst. That can be with or without seafood; with or without dairy; with or without eggs; with or without some meat.
We called it a Planet-Based Diet and used this term to move away from the notion that we can only eat plants. Having said this, it is true that most animal-source foods have a higher environmental impact than plant-based foods. Livestock production itself is responsible for nearly 10% of global emissions (only methane) and uses approximately 3.0 billion ha. All of global agriculture uses about 4.1 billion ha – 40% of earth’s surface – and of this 3.0 billion is used for livestock. That’s a lot of land and land is such a precious resource. We don’t have a lot of it. And meat consumption is expected to rapidly increase with rising GDPs (Gross Domestic Products) and an exploding global population. The FAO-OECD predicts global meat consumption will increase by 12% by 2030 and we’ve estimated that GHG emissions from food production will double by 2050. This alone, even if all other sectors decarbonise, is enough to put the Paris Agreement out of reach. And this says nothing about the continued deforestation that would take place with livestock expansion.
How do dietary shifts contribute to ‘bending the curve’ and what do you mean by that?
Well, reducing the impact of food production is not enough. We also have to actively work to restore nature. This is what we mean by bending the curve on exploiting nature. And to restore nature, using so-called nature-based solutions, we need land. Often reducing food loss and waste and radical changes in food production practices such as regenerative agriculture are promoted as solutions to restore nature and decrease impacts. But even universal adoption of radical agricultural practices will still drive rising demand for land if they are not accompanied by dietary shifts. All three actions are needed but dietary shifts are really the global enabler to allow for widespread adoption of better modes of farming without increasing pressure to convert natural land.
What do you see as the current drivers of dietary change?
Rising GDPs and urbanisation are key drivers. Also, global companies and marketing are also key drivers. Some recent research by BiteBack2030 demonstrates implicit collusion between some big food companies and some social media influencers on marketing junk food to kids. But what we are seeing with dietary change is that diets can be influenced and change quite rapidly. Some countries have undergone a nutrition transition in a single generation, so we know that diets are not immutable. But we do have to figure out how to make diets more sexy.
Which food system actors have the most power in shifting diets? How does that compare to other food system issues?
Building on what I just said, companies and marketing agencies have a huge impact. But so do politicians. We can’t expect all individuals to just change their diets. Too often we rely on education and awareness campaigns, those bottom-up policy levers, but these are not enough. We also need top-down regulations that create an environment where people can change their diets. This might mean making healthy food a lot cheaper than junk food because we know that many food decisions are based on costs. There is talk about carbon taxes for some sectors and we also need to think about carbon taxes for food or building in the true cost of the food that we eat. This could definitely have a huge impact.
Many countries’ National Dietary Guidelines (NDGs) fall short of meeting global health and environmental targets. What do you find are the barriers to setting NDGs in line with these goals?
They are way off! Few if any countries really follow their NDGs, even though some countries have very good NDGs to starts. But most NDGs don’t have any teeth. NDGs are key policy advice and important for the public and education campaigns to know what we should be eating. They also influence public procurement of food. I think one of the key barriers is that they are only guidelines and they are not integrated into agricultural or health policies. When you have more alignment between these, I think that you will see a much greater shift toward achieving NDGs.
What are the limits of dietary guidelines to provoke change?
They are really up to the individuals to achieve. There is no enforcement or incentive for following these guidelines. It’s relying more on these bottom-up policy processes to create change and there is very little evidence that education and awareness campaigns alone are effective at scale.
One of the strategic actions in the report is to “Change diets to reverse biodiversity loss.” Can you explain how this works?
Sure. Food production is the leading cause of biodiversity loss. It is estimated that agriculture is responsible for 70 to 80% of all species threatened with extinction. Since 2000, the world has been losing around 5 million hectares of forest every year. Nearly all of this occurs in the tropics: almost half of all deforestation takes place in Brazil and Indonesia. Three-quarters is driven by agriculture. Beef production is responsible for 41% of deforestation while palm oil and soybeans account for another 18%. So, shifting our diets so that we eat a greater proportion of plants compared to animals reduces the pressure on land conversion and can also free up large areas of land for restoration back to nature.
Of course, this leads to the land sparing/land sharing debate. I’m not even sure why it’s a debate. We need both. We need to both keep some areas off-limits for development, such as natural grassland areas, peat swamps, and tropical forests to name a few. These areas are treasure troves of carbon and biodiversity. At the same time, we also need to take the 40% of land used for agriculture and incorporate some biodiversity conservation measures into these lands. This could be setting aside 10% of these lands for biodiversity conservation.
With respect to more local or global diets, what’s the ideal scale here if the goal is to reduce biodiversity loss? Can you give some country-specific examples?
There really is no ideal scale, and this is something that we have to learn to become more comfortable with. Too often we want to promote panaceas. These could be claims of organic food, regenerative agriculture, or local food production as “the thing” that will fix our broken food system. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. Let’s take local food production. The importance of local food production has been promoted for a long time. Do you remember the “100 mile diet” from a few years ago, or the push for urban food systems and farmers markets? And now Covid has again brought local food production to the fore with many groups/organisations calling for the need to support “local food systems with shorter, fairer and cleaner supply chains that address local priorities”. Local food systems are important and we should support them when and where necessary, but we can’t rely on them to feed the planet. We found that in some cases local food production could actually increase GHG emissions and biodiversity loss in some areas. This is mainly true for those countries that are facing significant burdens of undernutrition and therefore need to increase food consumption. If this is done only through local food production, then this could lead to further conversion of critical ecosystems. Indonesia is a good example. Tackling undernutrition in the country by increasing consumption of certain foods could actually drive a significant increase in biodiversity loss, mainly through forest conversion. There is a similar story for other tropical countries around the world.
So what does this mean for trade? Well, the global trade of food has more than doubled since 1995 and totalled 1.5 trillion USD in 2018. But this may need to increase even further, especially as we tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, which requires that land-use emissions must reduce to near zero in the coming decades. And if we can decarbonise the transport sector, which is being worked on at the moment with innovations in shipping technology (such as ammonia fuels), then it doesn’t matter where food is grown. The climate impact will be near zero. In fact, the current transportation of food is 1% and could actually be less than 1% of total global emissions. We need to solve this, but eating that avocado shipped in from Chile has less of an impact than driving your car to the store to pick up that avocado. We need to start putting our priorities in the right places.
It’s important to note that our study did not look at reductions in food loss and waste and improvements in farming practices, both of which are critically important in increasing production without further land conversion.
What types of agriculture production should we be scaling from a nutrition perspective? Would the answer be different if our primary goal for food systems was reducing greenhouse gas emissions?
Definitely more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. In the EAT-Lancet report, we estimated veggies would need to increase by 75% by 2050, fruits by 50%, legumes by 75%, nuts by 150% and fish by 50%. These would be the same as for health.
What are the trade-offs when we prioritise one goal over the other? Where are the synergies?
It’s difficult to unpack how countries are impacted differently but, in general, countries that are facing burdens of undernutrition will need help to tackle both health and environmental goals. We can’t expect them to fight hunger and also reduce GHG emissions and also protect their biodiversity without some kind of help. This could be payments for keeping the carbon in the ground, debt relief, financial assistance, trade deals, whatever is needed to be able to tackle multiple crises at the same time. When we do this, it has synergistic effects.
How did you determine what the diet composition would look like for each shift in different countries (e.g., composition of oils, fish, alcohol, etc.)? How did you consider cultural preferences? Recommended energy intake? Current intake?
We relied upon analysis done by Marco Springmann and Joseph Poore: The healthiness and sustainability of national and global food based dietary guidelines: modelling study. Consumption was estimated for each country using FAO’s Food Balance Sheets (food availability) and then subtracting out estimated food waste at point of consumption. We used a general estimate of food intake for each dietary patterns so diets were not adjusted for each country, but their impacts were adjusted based on what foods are consumed in that country. We have a detailed database of food impacts at the country level which we used to estimate these impacts. Energy intake was estimated based on optimal energy intake by age group and sex and this was then used – depending on the demographics of a country – to determine overall energy intake. In general, this ended up being about 2100 to 2200 kcal per person.
In your flexitarian diet, you allow for a ‘moderate’ consumption of animal-source food products. How did you define moderate?
For our flexitarian diet, we used the EAT-Lancet targets for red meat consumption, which is a range of 0 to 28 g/day with optimal intake of 14 g/day. This also allows for up to 2 servings of white meat and fish as well so in total five servings of animal-source foods per week. Now this number has been debated quite a bit and in the EAT-Lancet report this target was set based only on maximising human health. The environmental impacts were not part of the consideration when setting this target for meat consumption. Some would say this is too low, others too high from a health standpoint, but from an environmental standpoint, we found that this target for meat intake is about the maximum amount we can eat for a population of 10 billion people and still stay within planetary boundaries for food production. It also wasn't that many generations ago when eating meat once or twice per week was the norm. It’s only been recently where having meat at every meal is considered the norm. But, as we’ve discussed, this is clearly unsustainable.
There was another country-specific report “Country-specific dietary shifts to mitigate climate and water crises” (Kim et al., 2019) [read TABLE’s summary here], that examined the carbon and water footprint of different diets including a low-food chain diet (e.g. insects, bivalves, foraged fish) – was it a deliberate choice not to include such a scenario?
I know this paper. It’s a good one. But there isn’t a lot of good evidence on the impacts of these particular food choices, and I doubt that eating insects can ever be scaled globally. However, it’s not that we don’t look at it, and a flexitarian diet could include bivalves and foraged fish. We don’t exclude that in the report and doing so would definitely have a positive impact, but the majority of people aren’t eating these foods so it’s more difficult to assess.
How did you distinguish between legumes (different types), fruits and vegetables? They are grouped together in several parts of the report, but they have very different implications for scaling related to agricultural production [where they can grow, land-use, fertility requirements], and they offer different nutritional needs.
The database that we used didn’t separate all fruits, veggies, and legumes. This would really be an impossible task and in general their impacts are similar. I agree that they have different types of implications for where they can grow and fertility requirement, but overall their impacts are much less than for most animal-source foods.
Near the end of your report, you lay out five strategic actions: 1) Reversing biodiversity loss, 2) Living within the global carbon budget for food, 3) Feeding humanity on existing cropland, 4) Achieving negative emissions and 5) Optimising crop yields. Can you elaborate on #4 “Achieving negative emissions”?
The negative emissions action is critically important. We need to store lots and lots of carbon in the ground in order to achieve 1.5°C. The best way of doing this is to let nature pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it for us. It already stores about 42% of annual emissions in land and ocean sinks and the aim of this strategic action is to help nature to store even more carbon by planting trees or restoring other degraded ecosystems. Here, dietary change can help because a shift toward more plant-based diets could potentially free up agricultural lands that could be restored to nature.
What policies would help in “Bending the curve”? And at what level of governance (global, national, regional)? What is the low-hanging fruit that can have an immediate impact?
Immediate impact? The most immediate impact is for individuals today, and I mean right now today, to change their diets. This is by far the most immediate. But this relies on 7 billion people doing the same, so this might be immediate, but I would not consider it a low-hanging fruit. Some other important things we could do are to reform NDGs which will in turn impact things like public procurement policies. That could be relatively fast. Implementing marketing bans of unhealthy foods and making healthy food sexy would definitely help. Also, getting big businesses on board can help as well. They can move more quickly than most governments.
Is it more effective to work at a local, national, or global level?
They all need to happen, but they happen at various speeds. The quickest transformations could probably happen at the city level, and this is why working with cities is so important and especially more so with the rapid urbanisation taking place. But we also need to work at national and global levels to create real systemic change. The UN, for the first time, is hosting a Food Systems Summit later this year and this is a huge step forward. Hopefully this will lead to a framework convention on food systems and an IPCC-type of scientific body for food systems. This will then give national governments a framework to work under and global commitments to follow, especially if a Paris-type agreement for food systems is signed.
Might global and local recommendations contradict each other? For example, meeting nutritional needs in some low-income countries requires a higher carbon footprint. How do you reconcile these differences?
Yes. But it’s just this kind of nuance that we need to become more comfortable with. We have to reduce global GHG emissions, but some countries might need to increase their food-related emissions to tackle burdens of undernutrition. This then places a higher responsibility on those countries that currently have high food-related GHG emissions to reduce theirs. This differentiated responsibility is not a new topic and is hotly debated but we have to do it if we want to tackle both health and environmental crises. If we are serious about feeding everyone on the planet healthy food and believe that enough food is a human right, then this places more of the responsibility on some countries that are currently consuming more than their fair share of food. When you look at this from the food-prints of each country this becomes even more obvious. For example, if we all ate like Australians then we would need approximately 6.8 earths, Brazilians 5.2 earths, and Indians 0.84. So clearly there is currently not equality of food consumption, with G20 countries currently consuming more than their share of food resources.
In your report you mention that global dietary shifts could help reduce the future risks of pandemics. Could you elaborate on this?
The same drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss are also the same drivers of pandemics. As we encroach on natural systems we put humans, livestock and wild animals in closer proximity, thus increasing the chances for a virus to infect a host and possibly start a pandemic. There have been several reports that have come out over the past several months that have explored this in more depth: one by UNEP and another by IPBES. But reducing the risk of future pandemics means protecting the environment and the only way that we can do this is to reduce our overall meat consumption.
What are some findings from the report that don’t make a top headline, but that you think are important to share?
I think the optimiz#sing food production section, which centres more on fertiliser and water use, is very important but less attention-grabbing. To feed humanity on existing croplands, we need to increase yields in many parts of the world. In some cases, this may mean that we have to increase fertiliser and water inputs, especially on depleted soils. We can do this by redistributing global fertiliser use from those areas that are using too much to those areas that are not using enough.
What visions of the future food system alarm you? Which inspire you?
Well, a WALL-E type vision is pretty scary, where what we produce is both killing us and destroying the planet. One of my favourite places are the rainforests of Borneo. It’s pretty magical to sit in the forest and listen to the diversity of life all around you. It’s awe-inspiring. Losing this is pretty horrifying. But a vision of farming which restores nature, farms that produce food and support biodiversity, and people eating healthy food – that’s inspiring. When I watch my girls eat healthy food, that makes me happy and inspires me. A world where we all eat this type of food sound pretty good to me.
What is getting too much attention and what is getting too little?
Quick fixes. Panaceas. It feels like “game-changing” ideas or “Earth-shots” or Elon Musk’s $100 million award for carbon sequestration idea are making headlines these days. These are all quick fixes and often technological. And believe me, I’m not saying that we should not focus on these big ideas, but we can’t do so at the expense of what we already know. And we already know what needs to be done. We have the solutions at hand but we don’t yet have the political will to implement these solutions.
Secondly, people don’t like to talk about dietary change. It much easier to talk about food loss and waste or changes in food production but dietary change is a politically charged topic. But this is a hugely important issue and if we implement reduced food loss and waste and change how we produce food but we don’t change our diets, then we will not be able to solve the multiple converging crises we are facing today. Diets enable the other actions to have maximum impact. In addition, there are huge health benefits by shifting diets. Everyone is talking about vaccines and wearing masks and these are all important but a strong immune system is also important. We have to start talking about this.
Thank you very much for your time, Brent!
How can shifting towards a planet-based diet reduce biodiversity loss? In our conversation with Brent Loken, Global Food Lead Scientist, at the WWF, we unpack the 2020 report Bending the curve: The restorative power of a planet-based diet, and dive into the complexity and tradeoffs between different diets, and human and environmental health. We talk about different responsibilities of nations across the world, whether eating meat is really a problem, and why we shouldn't be betting on a single solution for transforming food systems.
About Brent Loken
Brent Loken is the Global Food Lead Scientist for WWF. Previously, Brent worked for EAT, the science-based global platform for food system transformation, where he was a lead author on the EAT-Lancet report on Food, Planet, Health. Brent co-founded and helped lead a progressive international school and co-founded a conservation NGO that focused on protecting rainforests and biodiversity by empowering indigenous peoples.
His past research includes a variety of publications ranging from subjects on food and health to orangutan terrestriality and tropical forest governance. His current work includes a report on food consumption patterns in G20 countries and the potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a series of papers that develop national level roadmaps on GHG mitigation potential from changes in food and agriculture, and an analysis on how sustainable logging in a tropical forest impacts biodiversity.
Background reading and resources
Related TABLE resources
Grazed and Confused (report and video explainer)
What is a sustainable healthy diet? (report)
What is the land sparing-sharing continuum? (explainer)
Let us know what you think of the episode and the written interview in the comments below!