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Research of the month: Could the planetary diet protect our future?

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten, 3rd April 2019

In another of our monthly blog post written by Science Wordsmith Lucy Goodchild, we explore the findings and attention around a piece of research published in the previous month that caught the public’s attention. Listen to the accompanying podcast here.

How global coverage of a paper in The Lancet could help transform our food system

Food is something we all have in common: as humans, we need to eat in order to survive. But food can have negative impacts, both on human health and on the environment. Obesity rates are soaring in some populations, while hunger is ravaging others. Monoculture crops are affecting bees, the water demands of arable land are exacerbating droughts, and the land and animal feed we need to support our increasing red meat habit are resulting in deforestation and depletion of biodiversity.

At the same time, the global population is soaring and is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. We need to feed everyone in a way that’s healthy for the people and the planet. But until now, there has been no consensus on what constitutes a healthy diet or what sustainable food really is, and no clear scientific targets for improving our food system. Is it even possible to transform our food system?

The authors of a new study are hopeful. The EAT–Lancet Commission investigates this question and sets out targets we will need to meet if we are to ensure a healthy, sustainable food system for future generations.

Read the study: “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems

“Without clear scientific targets, it’s pretty hard to actually achieve goals. So we set out to see if it’s actually possible to feed 10 billion people a healthy diet, and do it within the environmental limits that we have,” said Dr. Brent Loken, Director of Science Translation at Oslo-based EAT Forum. “Now, for the first time with this report, we have consensus, we have clear scientific targets and we can start working towards actually changing the food system.”

Dr. Brent Loken, Director of Science Translation, EAT

In partnership with The Lancet, Dr. Loken and his colleagues put together a global team to investigate the food system and come up with a solution – 37 people from 16 countries around the world worked on the report. They spent nearly three years reviewing the literature, coming up with targets and modeling to see if it’s really possible to maintain 10 billion healthy diets sustainably. The final report was peer-reviewed and published in The Lancet.

The result – the EAT-Lancet Commission– shows clearly that we need to transform the food system if we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. According to Dr. Loken, we risk failing on these global goals if we don’t focus on food. While clearly not an easy thing to do, transforming the food system could have a significant impact on many of the world’s biggest problems, and the Commission showed that it could also save nearly 11 million lives.

“The great thing about food is it provides us a pretty amazing opportunity to achieve human health and planetary health at the same time,” said Dr. Loken. “We can actually fix a lot of the environmental and human ills that we’re facing.”

But here comes the million-dollar question: is it actually possible to transform the food system?

Publicizing the planetary health diet

It might be a monumental task, but one of the reasons Dr. Loken thinks it’s possible to fix the system is that food is something we all care about, and it’s more tangible than many of the other problems the world is currently facing.

“It’s sometimes hard to connect and find exactly what it is that an individual can do, and food gives people the power and the agency to be able to make change,” he said. “We eat it every day, we fall in love over it, we have conversations over it, we have meetings over it – food really sparks great interest in people.”

This interest has helped take the Commission report worldwide: more than 270 news reports and 2,200 tweets have resulted in an Altmetric attention score of over 3,600.

Discover the coverage:

But it didn’t happen by chance: the team had a coordinated outreach and communications plan, developed and run by EAT, The Lancet, The Wellcome Trust and other institutions, to ensure they could get the message out. They built a scaffolding of publicity around the report, with a press release and other materials to support the Commission, like policy briefs and a summary report, to make sure every relevant group would get the information they needed from the work. They held a briefing in London, a high-profile launch in Oslo and a launch at the UN in New York.

“There was a much wider team working flat out for many weeks, both before and upon publication, to make sure that the right spokespeople were available with various different areas of expertise,” said Tamara Lucas, the Executive Editor at The Lancet who led the EAT-Lancet Commission.

“We wanted people to actually think about what they’re eating, to have some concept of the fact that diet has an impact on both bodies and the planet,” she added. “We wanted to reach a wide enough group of people that we could generate discussions and ultimately change perspectives, habits and practice. The publicity had a crucial role in achieving that – not everybody will pick up a 30,000-word scientific document and read and understand it.”

Tamara Lucas, Executive Editor, The Lancet

One outcome the team wasn’t expecting was the widespread adoption of the term ‘planetary health diet’, as Lucas explained: “It’s become something that I hear almost every day now, it’s really taken hold of people’s imaginations. The publicity has struck a chord, providing the link between how people think and what choices they make and what the science in the study is actually saying.”

The media coverage has been global, and the team has seen massive impact already. Governments, companies and individuals are talking about the Commission and how we can transform the food system. The publication has created a lot of discussion and the scientific targets are already being translated into policies and actions.

“It’s been pretty humbling,” said Dr. Loken. “We knew that we were on to something very important, but you never know what kind of impact it’ll have until it’s launched. This exceeded the expectations we had – the massive global impact has been overwhelming.”

Now it’s time for the team to turn the impact into action. There are more events planned and discussions will continue. For Dr. Loken, it’s important that they continue to communicate with the public about the science.

“This is an age in which some people are going against science – they’re not believing what science is saying. I think we need to start figuring out how we communicate our findings. As we’re seeing more and more, people don’t value facts; we need to work out how to bring facts back to the top and show that they really do matter.”

The stakes are high in this case: the health of our planet and future generations of its human inhabitants depends on the success of the measures the EAT-LancetCommission is proposing.

“Transforming how we produce food, where we produce food, and what we eat is a monumental task, but it’s one we need to undertake,” said Dr. Loken. “Food has so much power to do both bad and good, it gives us an opportunity to create change. And if there’s anything that we want to take seriously, it should be what we’re putting in our bodies.”

Dr. Brent Loken’s top tip for promoting research

If we want to create change, scientists have to do a better job of actually communicating what we’re doing. We can’t just sit in our ivory towers and write our papers and go to our conferences and talk to the people we know within our research field. The only way that we can make change is to get out there. If scientists want to make a global impact, they have to work on their communications, whether it’s interview skills, media skills or writing press releases. I really encourage any scientist out there to think about, ‘How do I take this beyond the traditional academic audience and engage with people?’”

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