Thorkild Tylleskar/Wikimedia Commons
Critics of the diet cite concerns about the economic impact on poor, livestock-producing countries.

Health Issues

Editor’s note: Several weeks after this article was published, Simen Sletsjøe, a spokesman for the EAT-Lancet Commission, contacted The New Food Economy to contest the British Medical Journal’s report that the World Health Organization (WHO) had “pulled out of sponsoring” a Geneva, Switzerland launch event for the diet.

In his email, Sletsjøe directed The New Food Economy to a statement saying WHO had not “withdrawn its support” of the Commission, because the Commission “has never sought to be, nor been sponsored or endorsed by any intergovernmental agency, including WHO.”

The New Food Economy contacted the British Medical Journal (BMJ) for clarification. Zosia Kmietowicz, a news editor, assured us the report was “wholly legitimate,” citing “copies of the letters” and “notices of WHO’s planned sponsorship of the event in Geneva.” She did not share these documents with us.

The New Food Economy also reached out to WHO, who had not responded to an inquiry before the article first published, to clarify. In a series of emails, Paul David Garwood, a WHO spokesman, confirmed the Commission’s statement, and said WHO had “never sponsored, hosted, or organized the event.”

Garwood’s correspondence conflicts with the Commission’s website, which cites WHO as an “organizing partner” of the Geneva event, as well as an event invitation that bears the WHO’s logo, which was posted online by the Italian ambassador. The BMJ also continues to stand by its reporting.

We will continue to follow this story.

British Medical Journal reports that the World Health Organization (WHO), the arm of the United Nations charged with monitoring global health, has dropped its sponsorship of the EAT-Lancet Commission’s planetary health diet—a much-ballyhooed, well-publicized attempt at saving the planet through the food we eat.

The organization pulled out of sponsoring a launch event in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 28, after Gian Lorenzo Cornado, Italy’s ambassador to the United Nations, questioned the diet’s impact on public health. The ambassador stated that radical, drastic limitations on animal livestock production—the commission’s primary recommendation—would cause economic hardship in developing countries. In a press release, the “permanent mission,” as the office is known, also suggested the report was not sufficiently independent, and aimed for nothing less than the “total elimination of the freedom of choice” by consumers.

“A standard diet for the whole planet, regardless of the age, sex, metabolism, general state of health and eating habits of each person, has no scientific justification at all,” Cornado wrote. “Moreover, it would mean the destruction of millenary healthy traditional diets which are a full part of the cultural heritage and social harmony in many countries.”

“A standard diet for the whole planet, regardless of the age, sex, metabolism, general state of health and eating habits of each person, has no scientific justification at all.”

The launch event still went ahead, but was sponsored instead by the government of Norway—where EAT, the advocacy group that led the study, is based. According to a report that the Italian office posted on their website, it sounds like the study’s authors got heckled a bit—specifically, about a claim in the report that “inappropriate” foods should be discontinued.

What exactly is the planetary health diet? As I wrote back in February, it’s a high-tech, elaborate reboot of the Mediterranean diet. According to life-cycle assessments, it should improve individual health while, at the same, limiting the greenhouse gases produced by the global food system so that the planet can meet the climate goals outlined by the Paris Agreement.

The most contentious part of the diet involves livestock, which emit 14.5 percent of the globe’s greenhouse gases, and specifically cows, who release more of those gases than any other farm animal. The study’s authors contend that meat consumption is expected to continue rising, and if that happens, the amount of heat-trapping methane to enter the atmosphere would be devastating.

But its detractors, including University of California-Davis air quality scientist Frank Mitloehner, say that methane from cows isn’t a big problem in the first place. In fact, critics argue, the legume-and-grain-heavy diet prescribed by the EAT-Lancet Commission would necessitate deforestation for row crops, which would create problems of its own. (Mitloehner is advising Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s policy team on Green New Deal legislation.)

It’s not the ecological claims, though, that led WHO to back off.

In his complaint, Cornado, the Italian ambassador, said that African countries like Ethiopia depend on livestock, and that if the recommendations were implemented, it would ruin their economy. A fair point, but throughout their report, the authors point out that the diet should vary from place to place, specifically because of those issues.

He also takes issue with the nutritional claims. The study’s authors say that the diet—which calls for major increases in consumption of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and conversely, decreases in anything that comes from animals—would go a long way in reducing weight-related disease and mortality. But it would also result in low intakes of iron, retinol, and vitamins B12 and D3, according to at least one dietitian’s analysis. (Walter Willett and Johan Rockström, who co-chaired the report, have called their report “the most up-to-date scientific evidence for healthy diets,” Meatingplace reports (registration required).

This wasn’t the first time that EAT has struggled with its diet’s rollout.

Cornado may be right to be skeptical of that science. The planetary health diet is based on a synthesis of preexisting nutritional science, including research undertaken by Willett, a Harvard professor who’s a big believer in the Mediterranean diet. But nutritional science’s history is up for perpetual debate, for the simple reason that the findings are very rarely reproduced in randomized trials, says John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine, health research, and policy at Stanford University.

“There are few exceptions, but the status of epidemiological literature is not at a level to allow us to make these types of very detailed, specific recommendations,” Ioannidis tells me. For that reason, the health claims in the EAT-Lancet diet are “science fiction. I can’t call it anything else.”

This wasn’t the first time that EAT has struggled with its diet’s rollout. To promote the report, the commission has hosted launch events in cities across the globe, from New York—where Alec Baldwin introduced the study at the United Nations headquarters—to Bangladesh. Evidently, however, there isn’t an “appetite for sustainability” in Washington, D.C., where an event at the National Press Club was barely attended—though that could have been due to the weather.

UPDATE, May 13, 2019: Several weeks after this story’s publication, Simen Sletsjøe, an EAT spokesman, emailed The New Food Economy to say that the EAT-Lancet Commission “has never sought to be, nor been sponsored or endorsed by any intergovernmental agency, including WHO.” His email included a link to a public letter, written by the Commission, that responded to the Italian ambassador’s concerns. The WHO has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece mischaracterized John Ioannidis’ position as “a Stanford historian and frequent dietary critic.”

Additionally, these concerns were previously attributed to “The UN health commission”: Critics of the diet cite concerns about the economic impact on poor, livestock-producing countries.

Finally, we changed “endorsement” to “sponsorship” for accuracy.

Sam Bloch

Sam Bloch is a staff writer at The New Food Economy. He has also written about arts and culture for publications including The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, and CityLab. Reach him by email at: [email protected]

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