Where’s the Beef ?

It has been a few months since posting anything, in large part because as a long time observer of Climateball I have seen nothing new that prompted a response. The cumulative evidence for AGW and its impacts continues to accumulate, along with CO2, but the same responses also continue. Deniers deny, alarmist alarm and the BTI continues to rely on ignoring the distinction between AM/FM

I have also been occupied in audio-graphic experiments, some of which can be seen on my YouTube channel, linked on this blog page.

But recently The Lancet  published a report on how the human diet might be changed to both benefit individual health, and benefit the environment by reducing the impact from food production on CO2 and other pollutants. A connection I have made as an analogy before is now explicitly connected in this.

“The world needs to come up with solutions to fight three interrelated pandemics — obesity, starvation and climate change — and it needs to do it fast before the planet is “burning,” according to a report released in the Lancet.”

It was widely reported, usually without any editorialising, but some have jumped on it, either as the cure-all that MUST be imposed, or as a ridiculous and impossible Utopian prescription.


Here is a breakdown of the diet that is proposed to be a necessary step in both improving human health, and reducing the impact that food production has on the environment.

And some quotes from the report, and the reporting of it.

The Lancet Commission, a group of 43 experts from 14 countries with a broad range of expertise recruited by the journal, has tackled the topic with high-profile reports in 2011 and 2015, but “little progress has been made” other than acknowledging the epidemic, the authors of the newest report argue; in fact, the problem is getting worse.

Around the world, not one country has reversed its obesity epidemic, and often, powerful companies driven by profit influence policy that is “at odds with the public good and planetary health,” the report says. It’s a problem that has become what the authors call a global syndemic.

A syndemic is “a synergy of pandemics that co-occur,” interact and share common causes. These three pandemics represent the “paramount challenge for humans, the environment and our planet.”

Together, obesity and malnutrition are the biggest cause of premature death. Globally, more than 2 billion adults and children are overweight or obese and have health problems because of it, research shows. People don’t or can’t exercise, and that’s the fourth leading risk factor for death.

Simultaneously, the opposite problem exists. In 2017, world hunger increased for the third consecutive year, UN research shows. Two billion struggle with micronutrient deficiencies, and 815 million are chronically undernourished, the report says.

As global temperatures rise even faster than predicted, climate change could lead to many more deaths than the 250,000 a year the World Health Organization predicted just five years ago. Because of food shortages alone, the world could see a net increase of 529,000 adult deaths by 2050, according to research.

The new reports suggest that there is a solution: Governments, companies and activists should tackle these obesity and undernutrition issues while tackling climate change. Each problem is related, and each, in large part, happens because of “misplaced economic incentives,” “powerful vested interests,” “policy inertia” and “insufficient” demand for change from the public.
Solutions that help one could help the other. For example, if governments invest more in public transportation, that will make it more convenient and affordable for people to get to jobs that put food on the table. Those who drive less and take public transportation more often get more exercise and, studies show, tend not to be obese. If fewer people drove cars, there would also be less greenhouse gas to contribute to climate change.
The report’s other recommendations include reducing government subsidies for beef, dairy, sugar, corn, rice and wheat and redirecting that money to sustainable farming for healthier foods. Strengthening laws that increase transparency would let people see how much money politicians get from large food conglomerates to perpetuate unhealthy policies. Another suggestion: providing clear nutrition labels on products and adding labels to explain how sustainable a food is, including how much water and carbon it took to make it. Also, the authors recommend investing $70 billion over 10 years in a global “Food Fund” to reduce undernutrition.
The authors also say philanthropists should invest an additional $1 billion to boost social advocacy to demand solutions to these syndemics.
These syndemics “need to be tackled, and they have not been tackled, and this is a core concern,” said report co-author Tim Lobstein, policy director at the World Obesity Federation.
The authors say businesses could help lead the way, such as by investing more in sustainable energy. Such investment reduces the pollution that causes climate change and makes the air easier to breathe, meaning people can exercise outside more.
“The Lancet Commission Report may just contain the right ingredients needed for a nutritionally challenged world,” said Katie Dain, CEO of the Non Communicable Diseases Allianceglobal partnership, who was not involved in the report. “For too long, we have been daydreaming our way to a diseased future, one that is totally avoidable. The report’s interconnected message on nutrition and climate change is clear: A food system that secures a better diet for this and the immediate next generations will save millions of lives and, at the same time, also help save the planet.”
The authors hope the new report will start a conversation that creates alliances to push for better policies and encourage companies to create affordable products that would improve, rather than take away from, people’s health.
What we have now is “unsustainable, and we must act,” said report co-author William H. Dietz, director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness and a professor at George Washington University. Otherwise, the planet could be “burning” within 50 years.

So, where’s the beef ?

Like the Green New Deal, it claims a radical change must be made to deeply embedded social and economic systems that produce, process and distribute the calories and nutrients we all need. But it makes much more specific and explicit statements about the policy and infrastructure changes that are required. But like the GND it seems to make no allowances for the massive historical, financial, and logistical inertia that will oppose such changes. It seems to make the assumption that the mere supply of the scientific information that such changes are necessary, will inevitably convert people, business, and governments to actively support and make such changes. As if all the other motivations in play are rendered null and void by the warnings of warming.

There is a comparison with BREXIT to be made. Both, (for very different reasons) assert that radical change must be made, but as the farce and debacle of BREXIT shows, dismantling a complex and long-standing trade and economic relationship is not an easy process. And the changes proposed in the climate-diet report are far more radical, and global than the local conflict between national sovereignty and economic interdependence that is confounding the UK political system.

Regional and National diets and food production are  the result of long historical processes. The agricultural infrastructure and international businesses that have evolved to provide food for the expanding human population are in many ways even more deeply embedded within the financial and social global systems than the fossil fuel companies. It is clear from the responses to this in the US that the idea of consuming less red meat is even less popular than reducing the consumption of fossil fuels by cutting car use.

In many ways the radical change in how we grow, process and distribute food recommended in this report is a much more profound change than that which is required to reduce fossil fuels in our production of energy and transport. There is little impact on the consumer of electricity if it is generated by coal or solar/wind. The electric car is mechanically and functionally better than the internal combustion engine version and the transition to electric vehicles can be achieved with much less disruption to the individual than changing what they have spent a lifetime expecting to eat.

I would expect opposition from both the individual and the affected economic players to much greater for such a radical change in the production and distribution of food than it would be for changes in the source of energy that people use and industry generates.

Attacks on both aspects of the ‘Planet Healthy Diet’ have been directed at both aspects of the report. The estimated reduction in GHGs that might result from such changes to our agricultural systems has been disputed. Both in terms of the magnitude of reduction that could be achieved as well as the feasibility of such changes. At the individual level the diet has been attacked as UNhealthy, with claims it is deficient in some micro nutrients or  vitamins. These critiques are not without merit, it is unlikely that it has accurately estimated the impact on planetary health by cutting CO2 emissions from agriculture. The system is too wide, interdependent and complex to be amenable to simple addition and subtraction of possible food production changes.

It is also unlikely to be right about the health benefits of the recommended diet. Nutritional research is notoriously uncertain. Nutritional guidelines are often derived from epidemiological observations with all the problems of confounding factors, local tradition and vested interests that have long plagued attempts to find a ‘healthy’ diet. One mans’ meat is another man poison. The polarisation between carnivores and vegetarians is just one aspect of that.  It is rather depressing that the report itself contains an element that shows all to well the distortions that have dogged nutritional advice. Back in the 1960s one food industry started making a determined effort to shift the science. Just like the tobacco business and the coal and oil companies, they exerted influence to shift the blame from their product, or at least minimise the link between consumption of their product and the damage it could cause to people and the environment. As a result for many years the WHO and many national bodies that advised on healthy diets accepted that refined sugar added to processed foods, or as the main ingredient (soda, sweets) could be a significant part of the daily calorie intake. It was relatively recent that the advice finally changed, although even then the official figure was reduced to something that was still around double what nutritional research, finally unencumbered with industry influence, concluded would be a ‘safe’ level.

So while arguments continue in the climate field over how much we need to cut our consumption of refined hydrocarbons, and how fast, this report allows the idea that a safe level is  30g a day of refined carbohydrates (double the scientific estimate) as added sugar, to stubbornly persist.


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