Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
515,
Pages:
518–522
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nature13959
Received
Accepted
Published online

Abstract

Diets link environmental and human health. Rising incomes and urbanization are driving a global dietary transition in which traditional diets are replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats. By 2050 these dietary trends, if unchecked, would be a major contributor to an estimated 80 per cent increase in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from food production and to global land clearing. Moreover, these dietary shifts are greatly increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower global life expectancies. Alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent such diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases. The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Lifecycle GHG emissions (CO2-Ceq) for 22 different food types.
    Figure 1: Lifecycle GHG emissions (CO2-Ceq) for 22 different food types.

    The data are based on an analysis of 555 food production systems: a, per kilocalorie; b, per United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-defined serving; c, per gram of protein. The mean and s.e.m. are shown for each case. Extended Data Tables 1, 2, 3 list data sources, items included in each of the 22 food types and show the mean, s.e.m. and number of data points for each bar, respectively. NA, not applicable.

  2. Dietary trends and income.
    Figure 2: Dietary trends and income.

    Dependence of per capita daily dietary demand for: a, meat protein; b, refined sugars+refined animal fats+oils+alcohol; and c, calories on per capita gross domestic product (GDP measured in 1990 International Dollars). Each point is an annual datum for 1961 to 2009 for India, China, and six economic groups containing 98 other nations (Extended Data Table 4). Fitted curves were used to forecast 2050 income-dependent demand.

  3. Diet and health.
    Figure 3: Diet and health.

    Diet-dependent percentage reductions in relative risk of type II diabetes, cancer, coronary heart disease mortality and of all-cause mortality when comparing each alternative diet (Mediterranean, pescetarian and vegetarian) to its region’s conventional omnivorous diet (Methods). Results are based on cohort studies32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39. The mean and s.e.m. values shown are weighted by person-years of data for each study. Number of studies for each bar are, from left to right, 3, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 4, 2, 5, 13, 2 and 4. *Cancer in Mediterranean diets is from a single study so no s.e.m. is shown.

  4. Effect of diets on GHG emissions and cropland.
    Figure 4: Effect of diets on GHG emissions and cropland.

    a, Per capita food production GHG emissions for five diets (2009 global-average, 2050 global income-dependent, Mediterranean, pescetarian and vegetarian). b, c, Forecasted 2009 to 2050 changes (2009 value set to 0) in global food emissions (b), and cropland for each diet (Methods; alternative scenarios, such as lines 1-4, have fairly parallel trends) (c). d, 2050 global cropland reductions from alternative diets relative to income-dependent diet. The box and whisker plots (c, d) show mean (centre line) and percentiles below (2.5th, 10th, 25th) and above it (75th, 90th, and 97.5th) based on 243 scenarios.

  5. Dietary composition.
    Extended Data Fig. 1: Dietary composition.

    The percentage of per capita total dietary protein (a) or calorie demand (b) that is met by each of ten food types is shown for each of five different diets: the global-average 2009 diet, the projected income-dependent diet for 2050, the Mediterranean diet, the pescetarian diet and the vegetarian diet.

Tables

  1. Original data sources for LCAs in Fig. 1
    Extended Data Table 1: Original data sources for LCAs in Fig. 1
  2. Food group composition
    Extended Data Table 2: Food group composition
  3. Mean food production emissions
    Extended Data Table 3: Mean food production emissions
  4. Economic group country composition
    Extended Data Table 4: Economic group country composition
  5. Cohort studies and health conditions examined
    Extended Data Table 5: Cohort studies and health conditions examined
  6. Effects of agricultural development variables on forecast 2050 cropland use
    Extended Data Table 6: Effects of agricultural development variables on forecast 2050 cropland use
  7. Protein conversion ratios of livestock production systems
    Extended Data Table 7: Protein conversion ratios of livestock production systems

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Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, St Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA

    • David Tilman &
    • Michael Clark
  2. Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA

    • David Tilman

Contributions

D.T. conceived this project and M.C. assembled data; both M.C. and D.T. analysed data and wrote the paper.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to:

All data used in our analyses are publicly available from the original sources that we list, and are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Author details

Extended data figures and tables

Supplementary information

Excel files

  1. Supplementary Data (215 KB)

    This file contains numerous data sets used by Tilman and Clark. Each dataset is indicated by a letter (A to H) and has a descriptive title. See Methods for more details.

Comments

  1. Report this comment #64597

    Carlos Monteiro said:

    The drivers of environmentally unsustainable food systems

    The valuable and impressively researched paper by David Tilman and Michael Clark (1) rightly emphasises the simultaneous health and environmental effects of different dietary patterns, corresponding food systems underlying these patterns, and implications for food and nutrition policies and programmes.

    A start has now been made in Brazil. The environmental, and also social, cultural and economic nature and significance of diets, as well as their effects on human personal health and well-being, are embedded in the new Brazilian official national dietary guidelines, published in November 2014 (2)

    The analysis by Tilman and Clark sets out in great detail a global dietary transition in which traditional diets are replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils, salt and meats. It also shows the huge global negative impact of these dietary changes on agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, land clearing, and the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases. The dietary transition can be seen therefore as a driver of relevant environmental and health problems. However, we suggest taking the analysis a step further, to consider ?the driver of the driver?.

    Methodical analysis of the rapid dietary transition now seen in lower-income countries in the global South shows that far and away the most powerful driver is the unchecked strategy of transnational food and drink manufacturers and caterers to displace long-established dietary patterns based on freshly prepared meals with their ultra-processed, ready-to-consume food and drink products. Such vast and deep penetration is not apparent now in most countries of the global North because their food supplies are already saturated with these products (3).

    Any conclusion that urbanisation, rising incomes, and consumer choices, are driving changes in dietary patterns in ways that are pathogenic and also unsustainable, in our view does not get to the heart of the matter.

    Carlos A. Monteiro (carlosam@usp.br)
    Geoffrey Cannon (geoffreycannon@aol.com)

    References
    1 Tilman D, Clark M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 2014, 515: 518?522.
    2 Brazilian Ministry of Health. Dietary Guidelines for the Brazilian Population. Brasilia: Ministry of Health, 2014.http://189.28.128.100/dab/docs/portaldab/publicacoes/guia_alimentar_populacao_ingles.pdf
    3 Monteiro CA, Cannon G. The impact of transnational ?Big Food? companies on the South: A view from Brazil. PLoS Med. 2012; 9(7): e1001252doi:10.1371/ journal.pmed.1001252.
    Affiliation: Centre for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, University of São Paulo, Brazil.

  2. Report this comment #65031

    Ulli Weisz said:

    Health co-benefits of environmentally less burdensome dietary patterns can be significant, as argued recently by Tilman and Clark in Nature (515, 518?522, 2014), as well as in a burgeoning literature (e.g. 1). In a commentary accompanying the Tilman and Clark article Stehfest (Nature 515, 501-502, 2014) mentioned few, if any, effective options to promote dietary transitions, largely focusing on better-informed individual choices and on measures targeting the production side. However, adverse health effects of food are mainly caused by eating (disproportionate amounts of) unhealthy products, not by producing them. Hence, we propose not to restrict attempts to implement regulations to the production side but rather on the negative long-term side effects of the products themselves. This broader perspective leads one to consider the role of industry and transnational corporation and their liability. The history of tobacco control clearly showed that manufacturers can be held liable for health effects related to their products and for the costs associated with them. There is strong evidence how effective legal measures against tobacco have been, while evidence that softer measures brought substantial change is lacking (2). This has motivated researchers to propose that the same line of argument can be used to hold manufacturers of other harmful commodities such as certain foods liable for the effects of their products (3, 4). Although food is different from tobacco in many ways, as are the respective industries, we can and should learn from the successes achieved in the case of tobacco and implement similar regulations that hold industries accountable for the long-term health effects of their products.

    Ulli Weisz (ulli.weisz@aau.at), Helmut Haberl, Willi Haas
    Institute of Social Ecology Vienna, Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies, Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt, Vienna, Graz

    References
    1. Friel, S. et al. Lancet, 374, 2016-2025 (2009)
    2. Moodie, R. et al. Lancet, 381, 670-679 (2013)
    3. Wood, R. S. Policy Studies J., 34, 3, 419-436 (2006)
    4. Brownell, K. D. & Warner, K. E. Milbank Quarterly, 87, 259-294 (2009)

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