Optimal Diet for Planet and People – Researchers Have Their Say in High Profile Journal

Researchers from UKZN’s Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems (CTAFS) and the Water Research Commission (WRC) were featured in the Voices segment of the high profile One Earth journal where they commented on the Planetary Health Diet (PHD) proposed by the EAT-Lancet Commission in 2019.

The PHD resulted from investigations into healthy diets from sustainable food systems in the context of the Anthropocene era characterised by burgeoning populations, dwindling resources, increasing burden of malnutrition and diseases linked to diets, and the pressures of a changing climate. Calling food a defining issue of the 21st century, the Commission set out to develop a global reference diet for adults that would contribute to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.

Saying that food is ‘the single strongest lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability on earth,’ the Commission highlighted inequality in food systems, the risks to human wellbeing through unhealthy diets, and global food production’s threat to climate stability and ecosystem resilience. Aiming to fill the gap of globally agreed scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production, the Commission convened scientists from around the world across various disciplines to set these targets.

The PHD that resulted from this work recommends, universally, a flexible diet rich in plant-based foods with fewer animal sourced-foods and added sugars.

The Commission set targets that included acquiring international and national commitment to shift toward healthy diets; reorienting agricultural priorities from producing high quantities of food to producing healthy food; sustainably intensifying food production to increase high-quality output; prioritising strong and co-ordinated governance of land and ocean; and the reduction of food losses and waste.

Concerns have arisen among the scientific community regarding the PHD’s universality and potential trade-offs and conflicts. CTAFS Co-Director Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi with the WRC’s Dr Luxon Nhamo and Professor Sylvester Mpandeli contributed their views on whether a PHD is realistic, where there are remaining knowledge gaps and opportunities, and a way forward where a planetary health diet is concerned. They joined nine other experts from around the world who discussed various aspects of the PHD, from economic considerations to biodiversity and local contexts.

Mabhaudhi, Nhamo and Mpandeli, who have extensive knowledge on nexus planning, spoke about linking nexus planning and sustainable food systems. Saying that the guidelines are useful, they highlighted the lack of consideration of the agriculture-environment-health nexus and issues linked to this: biodiversity, poverty and inequality, social cohesion, and culture. These, they say, determine food sources and reasons for food choices and confer a sense of place and dignity.

The grand challenges that precipitated the need for the PHD are systemic, cross-sectoral issues, say the scientists, and omitting this context limits the PHD’s relevance of context, and applicability to the Global South. They recommend developing interventions that promote transformational change in food systems and diets, and propel these toward greater sustainability, resilience, and equity while operating within planetary boundaries and delivering on human health, well-being, and environmental outcomes.

Drawing on their own experience and expertise, Mabhaudhi, Nhamo and Mpandeli suggest the use of underutilised indigenous crops and wild fruits to address nutrition, human and environmental health, and diversify diets. They add that these kinds of strategies also draw on nexus planning related to poverty, inequality and unemployment, and gender and social inclusion through the creation of new and inclusive value chains for supporting these crops.

UKZN’s CTAFS through its cross-cutting, multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary research is addressing complex problems that include the promotion of novel crops and food systems to deliver social impact.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied