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Plant-based diet might be the future, but don't forget food heritage

Medical journal The Lancet made a big splash when it published a 51-page report this month laying out a plan for a sustainable “planetary diet” that transforms how we eat and live. Written by 37 scientists and members of the EAT-Lancet Commission, the report titled Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, recognizes a change in diet is needed to help the earth. By 2050, they argue, the global population is expected to be roughly 10 billion, and we will need to feed ourselves differently.

The report suggests one burger a week is enough to fill everyone’s red meat quota. Small amounts of fish and chicken are recommended, but plant-based proteins, nuts and a good helping of legumes make up the majority of the weekly target. Meanwhile, dairy and egg consumption is limited to four eggs per week and one glass of milk per day. These recommendations align with the revised Canada Food Guide, which combines and de-emphasizes dairy and meat, while recommending more plant-based proteins.

Though the report underscores the importance of global food security, it falls short on a few fronts.

For one, it doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. Numerous studies, for instance, 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 it. In other words, the report fails to recognize the human nature of our society, as there’s nothing more human than food.

Culinary traditions have influenced nations, clans and families for thousands of years. Food is intrinsically powerful; it either can bring us together through meals and celebrations, or it can tear us apart through embargoes on foodstuffs and spark quarrels between nations. It is a precious construct influenced by organizations, money, policies and global citizens.

For the non-elite, there is a significant difference between needs and wants. We all know we need to eat veggies and adopt a healthy lifestyle, but many do not for a variety of reasons; access, affordability and convenience are factors influencing consumer behaviour. While vegetarian and vegan options have been declining in price, their still-high costs make them inaccessible to many and, regardless of whether the impression is true or not, plant-based dieting is almost seen as an elitist way of life right now. This will need to change. But the report makes no mention of how these factors should be addressed.

Food diversity is what defines us all, in a way; entire 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 of life. It does not recognize that meat can be grown more sustainably, with efforts such as the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the emergence of cultured meat.

In the past year alone, countless studies have beat the same plant-based drum, and this latest 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 this planet, it is critical to value our food heritage, too. If we don’t, a report like The Lancet’s will be dismissed as haughty advocacy--and it shouldn’t.

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