The Diet That Was Supposed to Feed the World Forgot to Factor in the Poor

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More than 1.5 billion people on the planet can’t afford EAT-Lancet’s celebrated diet

Photo: Stas_V/Getty Images

InIn January, 37 of the foremost experts in nutrition science recommended a diet meant to improve the health of the planet and the humans living on it. The EAT-Lancet diet, named after the commission that created it, recommended that people everywhere eat more vegetables and that most — except those in developing countries — eat less red meat.

The commission, which published its suggestions in the medical journal The Lancet, claimed its diet was designed to sustainably and nutritiously feed the estimated 10 billion people that will be alive in 2050. It framed the diet as the first major attempt to universally address the global issues of malnutrition and climate change.

But there’s just one big problem with the diet — more than 1.5 billion people can’t afford it today.

When researchers not involved with the EAT-Lancet Commission analyzed the diet for affordability, they found that up to half the population of Sub-Saharan Africa and more than a third of the population of South Asia can’t pay for it, given their income level and the food systems in their region, according to a report published in Lancet Global Health this month.

Will Masters, a food economist at Tufts University and senior author on the study, tells OneZero that the EAT-Lancet commission overlooked the economics of their diet “because they’re not interested in economics.” (The EAT-Lancet study was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Stordalen Foundation, a private organization led by Norwegian billionaire Petter Stordalen.)

“They’re interested in guiding opinion about the health and environmental impact of diet choices,” Masters says.

New research finds the EAT-Lancet diet for human and planetary health is unaffordable for 1.58 billion people, mostly in the developing world. Pictured: the proportion of people in each region whose daily income is less than the local cost of the EAT-Lancet diet. Credit: International Food Policy Research Institute

The economic analysis, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, showed that the highest costs of the EAT-Lancet came primarily from fruits and vegetables, followed by legumes and nuts. Meat, eggs, and fish together with dairy made up a smaller proportion of the cost. “This diet costs a small fraction of average incomes in high-income countries but is not affordable for the world’s poor,” the authors wrote. Kalle Hirvonen, a co-author and senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute, says the findings point toward a deeper issue in global nutrition.

“If some of these healthy and sustainable foods are too expensive or unaffordable, it just indicates that we — researchers and policymakers — need to work harder to alleviate poverty and fix our broken food systems,” he tells OneZero.

“Food can’t be prescribed as a homogenous global menu.”

Though this is the first academic analysis of the EAT-Lancet diet, other skeptics have criticized the commission’s recommendations. Dr. Sylvia Karpagam, a physician and public health advocate in India, argued that much of the food recommended as part of the EAT-Lancet diet, like pulses, fruits, vegetables, and nuts, are “mostly unaffordable” to the poor in India. The new study backs up her argument, finding that more than a third of people in South Asia could not afford the EAT-Lancet diet.

Karpagam tells OneZero that the EAT-Lancet recommendations are “racist.”

“They reinforce age-old caste prejudices in India, where cheap vegetarianism is anyways being pushed on a majority of people, especially from marginalized communities,” she says. “Food can’t be prescribed as a homogenous global menu. It has to factor in local cultures and practices.”

She says that poultry, eggs, and livestock — consumption of which we should drastically reduce, according to the EAT-Lancet commission — have helped poor, nomadic, and pastoral communities get through times of income and food insecurity. Discouraging red meat, she says, “will be disastrous for these communities.”

Many other countries face similar scenarios. While Hirvonen says the diet would be a “great improvement” to the nutritional needs of most people in Ethiopia, where he is based, following the commission’s recommendations is simply not possible for people there right now. “Our research shows that access to good food markets, high and increasing prices of nutritious foods, and low incomes, coupled with limited awareness about the health benefits of nutritious foods are the main barriers why Ethiopian households are unable to consume healthier diets,” he says.

For people living in Ethiopia and other developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the EAT-Lancet diet would eat up at least 42% of their daily mean household income. In some areas of the world, people would have to fork over 173% of their daily mean household income, money they clearly don’t have, in order to afford the diet.

This chart from the study authors shows the percentage of the daily mean household per capita income the EAT-Lancet diet would cost. Credit: Lancet Global Health

The EAT-Lancet Commission hasn’t responded to the recent affordability analysis, but some researchers on the commission have commented on previous criticism. Dr. Tara Garnett, principal investigator at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and one of the contributors to the report, told The Guardian in May that she has “reservations about aspects” of the report and that not all 37 contributors to the report agreed on every part of it.

An estimated 820 million people are going hungry in the world today, and culturally relevant solutions to the dual problems of climate change and food insecurity are desperately needed.

“Our research reveals how the same human needs, which vary somewhat among people based on age and sex and other factors such as pregnancy and breastfeeding, can be met in wildly different ways, depending on local food systems and preferences,” Masters says.

“A necessary first step is affordability, and after that, a wide range of other actions are needed. The food system offers so many entry points for people to make a difference, wherever they live and whatever skills they bring to the table.”

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