Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sustainable Food Production on the Menu

By Ian Lowe

A scientific report has set targets for a healthy diet derived from sustainable food production.

The leading international medical journal, The Lancet, recently published a report ( calling for radical changes to diet and food production. The findings of the EAT-Lancet Commission provide scientific targets for a healthy diet from sustainable food production. The study was motivated by evidence that current eating is causing ill-health and stretching planetary boundaries.

The 3-year project brought together 37 experts from 16 countries. It concluded that increased food production in recent decades has reduced infant mortality rates and improved life expectancy, but there are still about 800 million people who don’t get enough to eat. At the same time, the global health benefits are being offset by a shift toward unhealthy diets. In simple terms, many people in the affluent world aren’t eating enough fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes, but we are eating too much meat, sugar and refined starches.

The Commission concluded that global adoption of its recommendations for healthy diets would cut consumption of red meat and sugars to less than half the present level, while doubling the amounts of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes consumed. With that shift in eating patterns, future food production could be contained within the relevant planetary boundaries.

Prof Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, one of the lead researchers, said that a sustainable food system would “use no additional land, safeguard existing biodiversity, reduce consumptive water use and manage water responsibly, substantially reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution” as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change.

The study argued that policies to encourage healthy eating patterns are needed in affluent countries. Australian governments have resisted the arguments of consumer groups and public health bodies, which have been campaigning for decades to discourage unhealthy eating through clearer labelling or taxes.

Most people are shocked to learn that the average Australian consumes about 700 grams of sugar every week, much of it in sweetened drinks. This, combined with increasing consumption of unhealthy food from fast food chains, sees the majority of adults now overweight or obese, with obvious consequences for their future health. Medical experts warn of the burden that increasing incidence of Type 2 diabetes is placing on the health care system.

At the same time, the Commission argues that agricultural policies should drive a shift away from producing red meat and sugar, with incentives for growing fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts. The report deserves careful study by our governments.

With the political debate about electricity supply intensifying as we approach a national election, a recent report by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator deserved attention. Instead, its release in the silly season just before Christmas was totally ignored by the commercial media. The assessment of future supply options would have made very uncomfortable reading for some politicians and aspiring candidates.

The joint study, Gencost 2018 (, found that the cheapest new power supply will come from solar panels and wind turbines. Other studies have shown that wind and solar are the least expensive on the basis of simple generation costs, but this report also took into account the need for storage.

The CSIRO lead author, Paul Graham, said that any new fossil fuel power will be more expensive than wind and solar, even allowing for large-scale battery and pumped hydro storage. In fact, Graham pointed out, there is not a great need to invest in storage for supply levels up to 50% from renewables because of the existing back-up needed to support the coal-fired generators and gas turbines.

Even with the storage needed to go beyond 50%, wind and solar still come in cheaper. That is true now, and the gap is projected to be wider in 2030, when many of the ageing coal-fired power stations will need to be replaced.

The report also estimated the likely cost of nuclear power, which is still favoured by some politicians. Based on the best economic case, using the new Small Modular Reactors, the cost of nuclear electricity would be about five times the cost of wind and solar without storage, and about three times the cost if storage is added to the renewables. So there is no economic case for nuclear power.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.