An Urban's Rural View

Do Calls for Radical Diet Changes Repeat the Malthusian Mistake?

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Where you stand depends on where you sit. That's how Rufus Miles, a perceptive bureaucrat, encapsulated the idea that organizations advocate policies that reflect their institutional perspectives. (…) For an example of Miles' Law at work, we need look no further than "Food Planet Health," a report spearheaded by EAT, a Stockholm-based organization that says it was "established to catalyze a food-system transformation." (…) Faithful to Miles' Law, EAT's report finds that a radical transformation of the world's food system is needed -- now.

The report was the work of a group of agriculture, public health and environmental experts that EAT assembled. Their report proposes to save the planet and greatly improve human health through a massive change in almost everyone's diets.

Groups of experts issue reports all the time, of course, and most of these reports are soon forgotten. This one is worth farmers and ranchers' attention. Were the world to embrace it, farmers everywhere would be forced to make drastic changes in what they produce.

The proposed "food-system transformation" is very much in keeping with the spirit of our era. Nutritionists have been telling us for decades to eat less meat, sugar and refined grains and more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts. This report recommends cutting worldwide sugar and meat consumption by 50% (much more in North America, which consumes 6.5 times the recommended amount of red meat) and doubling consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

Yet even more than the drastic recommendations to eat only one egg a week and 1.5 chicken nuggets a day, what stands out in this report are the claimed benefits: 11 million fewer deaths a year and slower global warming.

"Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth," the report says. Without a radical transformation in diet, "the world risks failing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement, and today's children will inherit a planet that has been severely degraded and where much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease."

The knowledgeable people who worked on this report -- some 37 scientists from 16 countries -- deserve to be taken seriously. That doesn't mean they can't be questioned. Here are a few questions that came to mind reading the report.

-- Is it realistic to think large numbers of people will adopt this diet? The authors seem to be counting on governments to make it happen -- by, for example, "making healthy foods more available, accessible and affordable in place of unhealthier alternatives, improving information and food marketing, investing in public health information and sustainability education, implementing food-based dietary guidelines, and using health care services to deliver dietary advice and interventions." But would that really be enough? Would governments instead need to stiffen those "dietary guidelines" into laws? What steps would they be prepared to take if their stiffened steps met massive public resistance?

-- Is this diet really the only healthy one? Consider that Australia leads the world in per capita meat consumption (…) and still ranks fourteenth among the world's 224 countries in life expectancy at 82.3 years. (…) Japan, which ranks second in life expectancy at 85.3 years, has a refined grain -- white rice -- as its staple food. (In case you were wondering, the U.S. ranks second in meat consumption and 43rd in life expectancy. Israel is third in meat and 12th in life expectancy.)

-- Is this diet really essential to saving the planet? There's no question that a human population of 7 billion, heading for 10 billion in 2050, stresses the environment. But is agriculture really the most important stressor? And even if it is, how much of that stress is due to methane emissions from cows? Might there be ways -- like adding seaweed to their feed -- to reduce those emissions without drastically reducing the cow population? (…).

More generally, does everyone really need to subsist on broccoli and almonds to reduce agriculture's impact on the environment? Have farmers really exhausted all the possible environmentally friendly ways of growing existing crops? Aren't scientists working on new ones even now?

It has been 220 years since Thomas Malthus wrote that "...the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." (…). History suggests Malthus underestimated the ability of agricultural technology to keep pace with population growth.

So, my final question is this: Could the authors of this report be repeating a variant of the Malthusian mistake? Aren't they underestimating future technological improvements that could enable farmers and ranchers to produce more food on the same amount of land with less environmental impact?

When, a la Miles, experts start with the aim of catalyzing a radical food-system transformation, it isn't surprising that their reading of the research concludes that a radical food-system transformation is necessary. They may be right. But they have some questions to answer first.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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