Considerations on the EAT-Lancet Commission Report

Today, Thursday 17th January, the EAT-Lancet Commission, together with a group of 37 highly influential researchers, returns to the fray with a new report on “sustainable food systems”. Which, whilst supporting the need for a global shift towards a “plant-based” diet and stigmatising livestock breeding as harmful, assembles a series of food invitations that are radical and non-scientifically valid. One above the rest: the almost total abandonment of animal protein consumption. All in the name of the interests of a few producers of plant-based food substitutes for meat and dairy products, the EAT-Lancet document aims at media hype rather than the validity of its contents. But science is the arena of debate, not confrontation. The report and the methods of its disclosure demonstrate the exact opposite. The ambition of the authors to “change the world’s diet” is impracticable and dangerous, also because it risks laying the groundwork for further worldwide increases in malnutrition and food waste. It is therefore necessary to make some important considerations.

Science is not based on opinions: 37 scientists, although authoritative, are not the scientific community

First of all, those who propose this report, in addition to being ideologically partisan and wanting to spread more their own partial interpretation of the food sector rather than a document of scientific validity, are supported by large donors with billionaire interests in the production of synthetic food and substitutes of animal origin products. One therefore wonders how the impartiality of such a “study” can give false hope to anyone. The experts placed around the table, although in some cases authoritative, are not the scientific community. Before the publication of this report, in fact, The Lancet should have submitted it for the examination of the international scientific community, including those livestock experts, nutritionists and climatologists (each of these categories boasts thousands of valid professionals and hundreds of magazines with an impact factor). A critical review ex ante of a prestigious magazine is the correct way to act. Already the methods of dissemination of the report, sent in the last few days to the editors of newspapers and magazines around the world “under strict embargo”, has given the measure of the media clamour that the EAT-Lancet commission wants to achieve, rather than warn about presumed dangers resulting from the improper use of food and natural resources.  

Environment: without animal husbandry, neither biological agriculture nor biodiversity protection are possible

Those who contributed to the writing of this report prove to have little or no practical experience in food production, or what constitutes the real sustainability of the whole food system. They do not even seem capable of considering or be aware of the fact that without animal husbandry neither biological agriculture, or in any case with a reduced need for synthetic fertilisers, nor the protection of the biodiversity that breeding guarantees are possible. If properly managed, breeding is in fact a formidable tool for the conservation of biodiversity, contributing to the regular supply of so-called “ecosystem services“. All this is very important not only for the maintenance of the landscape, but also for the preservation of the soil, as well as insect and birdlife, closely linked to each other. There is an ecological chain positively connected with the presence of farm animals, but the authors of the EAT-Lancet report seem to ignore this fact.

Fossil fuels: meat becomes a scapegoat to hide much more important causes of pollution

Accusing the world of meat and animal proteins on environmental impacts is a pretext for another reason: it hides the real problem related to the emissions of greenhouse gases, that of fossil fuels still today necessary for the production of energy, heating and air conditioning, industry and transport. In

fact, while emissions of the entire agricultural sector (including livestock and aquaculture) account for 10.3% of the total, those due to the use of fossil fuels represent a far more important 64%. Leading climate scientists have long argued that focusing on agriculture and continuing to spread the message of a necessary conversion to veg erroneously distracts from the highest environmental priority, which is and remains the use of fossil fuels. In fact, according to the latest FAO estimates available, the agricultural sector (including the production of meat, eggs, milk and aquaculture), has a climate impact equal to 10.3% of the total, while animal breeding by itself is responsible only for 5% of direct global emissions and the improvement of production efficiency continues to drastically reduce the carbon footprint in modern livestock breeding activities.

Food waste: the meat and milk supply chains are those with least waste

If we talk about environmental impacts we cannot ignore waste, much higher for vegetables than for meat and milk. The EAT-Lancet report sets the goal of “reducing food loss and waste by 50% to reduce pressure on food demand”. According to data provided by FAO however, the worst wastes worldwide are related to fruit, vegetables and tubers: up to even 45% of these fresh products are lost. Immediately after fruit and vegetables, always in terms of waste, we find cereals, 30% of which are lost. Followed by fish and meat, whose wastes accounts for 30% and 20% respectively.

In addition to the meat and cured meats production chain being much more virtuous than that of plant products, we generally look out for animal origin product waste, regardless of its price because of the social and cultural value perceived regarding these foods for centuries. All aspects arbitrarily ignored by EAT-Lancet. Increasing the production of vegetables (through the necessary use of chemical fertilisers, in the absence of breeding) means to further increase the waste of food and resources that today already accounts for about 8% of global emissions.

Climate: quitting meat eating is not a solution to reduce emissions

Relative to climate impacts, the EAT-Lancet report proposes models that are very difficult to handle, as well as being heavily dependent on a global collective behaviour and political choices, with graphs about global issues of dubious validity and hardly comprehensible. Here too it is urgent to point out that the main climate-altering gas produced by ruminants is methane. The methane emissions of the livestock sector are generated mainly by the anaerobic fermentation of the biomass that takes place in the digestive processes of all herbivores.

The relinquishing of meat is not the solution to reduce emissions, also because the available biomass would still be ingested by other organisms, such as wild ungulates, with the same methane production. According to the latest scientific findings, fermenting methane produced by ruminants, unlike carbon dioxide that accumulates over time, tends to naturally decay in the atmosphere within a few years. The discovery of this physical characteristic of methane has not yet been considered in the calculation criteria currently used to determine the climate altering value of a gas (GWP – Global Warming Potential), but has started a debate in the scientific community aimed at reducing the role of methane with respect to carbon dioxide.

More specifically, using the current metrics, in Italy, ISPRA estimated in 2010 the greenhouse gas emissions of the livestock sector equal to 4.4% (according to the ISPRA REPORT 2017): a historically decreasing figure, due to technological efficiency improvement and enhancement of the impact performance of Italian farms. In the 2018 report the Institute declares “The emissions from the agricultural sector decreased by 13.4% between 1990 and 2016. This reduction was achieved by the decrease in the number of head bred, in particular bovine and dairy cows and thanks to a lesser use of

nitrogen fertilisers. In recent years there has been an increase in the production and collection of biogas for energy purposes from animal manure, avoiding methane emissions from their storage”.

Health and nutrition: 37 scientists invite a change in the eating habits of 7.5 billion people

The EAT-Lancet report insists on the need for a “healthy reference diet”, with a consumption of beef of only 7 g per day, i.e. about half a small meatball, 7 g of pork, equivalent to half a slice of cooked ham, and 29 g of poultry, that is a nugget and a half of chicken. Dairy products? They talk about 250 g per day, which is a glass of milk. In short, the EAT-Lancet commission suggests halving meat consumption.

For this to happen, in the interests of those who finance the study (we repeat, the same people who aim to conquer ever more markets with the meat substitutes they produce) the EAT-Lancet report asks in practice that governments around the world make foods that are indispensable for a correct diet less available, more expensive, or even more difficult to produce. All this by implementing “a complete range of political levers” that even includes product bans, new taxes and consequently new profound social disparities, as well as the elimination of personal food choices.

Mediterranean Diet: A food reference model distorted by the Eat-Lancet report.

The report also talks about the Mediterranean diet, a food model recognised as being so virtuous that it is included in humanity’s heritage by UNESCO. The main feature of this world excellence is the presence of all foods, without any exclusion, which makes it the most varied amongst diets and especially the most complete and balanced from a nutritional point of view. The problem, in the EAT-Lancet report, is that they manage to cripple this too: the one indicated in their document is indeed incorrect, because it includes less than 10% of meat and 40% of fat.

Meat, fish, eggs and cheeses are foods that have always been present in the traditions of the peoples of the Mediterranean basin. In fact, in the past, in addition to fish, game, many farmyard animals (chickens, turkeys, rabbits, geese, etc.) and pigs, whose feeding was based on the use of agricultural by-products and on human food waste, were consumed. In general, what emerges from the Mediterranean model (which Italians still follow today and not by chance are amongst the most long-lived and healthy people of the planet) is a food style with a high consumption of vegetables, legumes, fruit and nuts, olive oil and cereals (50% of which are wholemeal), and a moderate consumption of fish, dairy products (especially cheese and yogurt), meat and desserts.

Real consumption and methodological weaknesses: Italians do not have to change their diet

The EAT-Lancet report is characterised by a very unscientific and weak methodological approach. Just to give an example, it does not consider territorial differences: whether narrating about the consumption of water resources or consumption and eating habits, for the experts of the EAT commission living in the desert of Kazakhstan or in the middle of Irish pastures makes no difference whatsoever. Otherwise the decision to include, for example, the consumption of European meat in the same category as those of Central Asia could not be explained otherwise.

It is therefore worth remembering what Italian meat consumption actually entails. First of all, we need to highlight the difference between “apparent meat consumption” and “real meat consumption“. The former is that which, unlike “real consumption”, takes into consideration also all the non-edible parts of the animals: bones, fat, tendons, cartilage and waste. Having made this distinction, still to this day ignored even by the main nutritional guidelines, the Italian per capita real consumption is about 104 g of meat per day (including chicken, beef, pork, salami, sheep, etc.), equal to 38 kg year.

This consumption includes all meat, regardless of how (raw, cooked, processed into cured meats, present in mixed food preparations, canned, etc.) and where (home, restaurants, fast food, canteens, communities, stalls, etc.) it is consumed. Considering only the consumption of red meat (beef and pork) and cured meats (thus excluding white meat), the actual consumption stands at 69 g per capita per day.

With regards to beef only, the actual consumption falls to 24.8 g per capita per day, well below the 100 g per day indicated by WHO / IARC as a health risk threshold.

Apart from the interested suggestions of the EAT-Lancet report, hence, before abandoning their traditional diet to follow dangerous food regimes, it is correct to let Italians know that they do not need to change their food (and life) model, also because they already consume a far less quantity of meat than the majority of the nations examined by the EAT commission.

The IARC/WHO case

The spread of alarmism caused by studies with limited scientific evidence, besides being based on countries and contexts with consumption levels and methods of production of both fresh and processed meat that are very different from the Italian context, has already been seen in 2015. We all remember when the IARC, on behalf of the WHO, anticipated the release of a monograph that gave the opportunity to detractors of red and cured meats to compare them even to smoking and asbestos, as inserted by the same IARC in the categories “probably” and “definitely” carcinogenic. During the course of 2018, this monograph was finally published, deflating as if by magic all the alarmists of the previous three years. For one simple reason: out of about 800 epidemiological studies examined, IARC judged only 14 of them reliable; of these, half, only 7, showed a correlation between an excessive consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer. In other words, out of 800 studies only 7 were in line with the alarm launched at the time: that is to say, less than 1%.

Strengthened by this experience, we hope that the media (Italian first of all) before yelling out the need to eliminate meat and animal food from their diet want to scrutinise properly what is written in the EAT-Lancet report, discover who finances it and why.

Moreover, it is important to remember one thing: that IARC itself indicates meat as a food rich in fundamental nutrients, amino acids, iron, zinc, Vitamins B12, other important vitamins and proteins with high biological value, recognises the benefits of this food in certain stages of life and never argued that eliminating it from a diet is necessary. Which is what the researchers of the EAT-Lancet group seems to want to suggest.

What are the “healthy” products proposed by the EAT-Lancet commission

As revealed very recently by Frédéric Leroy and Martin Cohen, behind this commission are hidden names or realities strongly linked to the so-called “Veg-Business”, in other words, aggressive marketing campaigns (disguised as ethical suggestions) that can bring the highest possible number of global consumers to abandon meat in order to buy its surrogates, be they plants or synthetic. But what is really inside these products? And above all, are these alternative proteins truly sustainable?

Few questions themselves on what the more fashionable alternatives to meat can currently contain. Like the fake hamburgers made in the USA endorsed by the huge investments of globalised agricultural protagonists and the high-tech economy. One of the most famous on the market is made up of a list of 16 ingredients, with water as its main ingredient and other substances deriving from products of chemical or physical plant transformation. No ingredient, with the exception of water, can be called “natural” because they are all synthetic: a large quantity of preservatives, colourings and thickeners that can only try to imitate the taste and consistency of real meat. Among these, isolated pea proteins (not the simple legume), canola oil (extracted with presses and solvents and then refined, comes from rapeseed and is enriched with oleic acid to it look more like olive oil), refined coconut oil (which holds the record of the lowest level of unsaturated fatty acids), mixture of plant extracts, ferric phosphate (chemical synthesis), annatto extract (a reddish yellow dye derived from an Amazonian plant), bamboo cellulose (so that the product retains water), methyl cellulose, potato starch, natural flavours, yeast extract, salt, sunflower oil, ascorbic acid, acetic acid (real meat is sour on its own, here it is necessary to add it otherwise it will not preserve), “natural” smoke aroma, vegetable glycerine.

Therefore, the diet based on meat substitutes does not seem to be a sustainable solution for the environment or for human health. The energy costs and nutritional impact of plant proteins are not yet clear, so it is important to await the first results of in-depth studies to formulate an overall judgment. By analysing certain data, it has been shown that vegetable burgers have a measurable impact in about 1/4 – 1/5 of the emissions expected for meat. But their cultivation emits and does not capture CO2; moreover, in order to provide the same protein contribution as meat, it is necessary to take a significantly larger quantity of vegetables: the protein content of 1 kg of beans is not at all equal to that of 1 kg of meat.

The livestock sector is part of the solution, not the problem

The willingness of the meat sector to participate in the debate is as concrete as its sensitivity to the problem of production sustainability. Fortified by professionals with proven scientific knowledge in the fields of livestock, environment and nutrition, the animal breeding sector asks that it be granted a concrete space for comparison in this debate, free from all prejudices however. Only in this way could a real professionalism be placed at the service of an action plan aimed at finding solutions and not just scapegoats.

Italian farmers and the whole livestock world have skills, science and technology readily available to be a part of the solution, not the problem. As is already taking place in developed countries, above all in Italy. Connecting nutrition and environmental impacts is a great exercise, but things do not always coincide because it is really difficult to combine rich foods such as meat, milk and eggs (and even fish) with their respective impacts and classify both as “bad”.

The Italian scientific community has already produced excellent publications rich in the literature cited above, showing how foods of animal origin are good for you, that the environmental impacts of livestock production can be contained and that these foods represent one of the economic assets of our country, and not only that. When we play with the health of the world, we look at virtuous food models: Italy is one of them.

The Sustainable Meat Project

After having studied Bio-engineering Sciences at Ghent University (1992-1997), prof. Leroy obtained a PhD in Applied Biological Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 2002, where he continued his academic career at the research group of Industrial Microbiology and Food Biotechnology (IMDO) as a post-doctoral fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO). Since 2008, he holds a professorship in the field of food science and (bio)technology. His research primarily deals with the many ecological aspects and functional roles of bacterial communities in (fermented) foods, with a focus on animal products. In addition, his interests relate to human and animal health and wellbeing, as well as to elements of tradition and innovation in food contexts.