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A global diet—designed to protect the planet—is too costly for 1.5 billion people

A new study considers a shortcoming in the influential dietary recommendations from the EAT-Lancet Commission: it doesn't factor in affordability across the globe.
November 15, 2019

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Over a billion people globally are too poor to eat a sustainable diet that would combat climate change. 

This concerning revelation comes from a recent study that analyses the findings of the landmark EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, and Health which came out earlier this year. The Commission’s ambitious report drew up the recommended climate-conscious diet for the planet’s 10 billion people by 2050 – one higher in fruits and vegetables, and lower in animal products and carbon emissions.

But the researchers on the new study say that the influential analysis nevertheless failed to factor in one important consideration: affordability across the globe.

The new findings, led by Tufts University, reveal that the cheapest possible version of the EAT-Lancet diet would cost an average of US$2.84 per person, per day. In low-income countries, that would use up 90% of the mean household income. That’s compared to only 6.1% in richer countries. Even more extreme, for 1.58 billion people across the planet, that diet comes at a cost that actually exceeds their household earnings. 

Several countries including Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Sierra Leone, and Yemen are earmarked as places where the daily cost of the recommended diet actually surpasses the mean household income of their citizens.

But what was particularly striking was that this problem isn’t confined to low-income countries alone: of the 1.58 billion who can’t afford the diet, 80% actually occur in middle-income countries. The researchers emphasize that these figures are also conservative, because household income would simultaneously be devoted to several other costs, such as housing, education, and transport – leaving behind even less to pay for food.  

This recommended diet – while relatively inexpensive in high-income countries – is unaffordable in many other nations, because it’s made up of a high proportion of foods that are costly, compared to other products that are locally available.

Fruits and vegetables made up the largest share of the diet and also its cost – accounting for almost a third of the expense – followed by legumes and nuts. Then came animal products including meat, eggs, and dairy: these were still included in EAT-Lancet’s recommended climate-friendly diet, but in smaller portions relative to a regular meat- and dairy-heavy, wealthy-country diet.

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But relative to the diets of poorer people, this recommended diet actually contains an increase in costly animal products. That partly explains why it’s ultimately so expensive for people in poorer nations.

To put this all into perspective, the researchers calculated that overall, the EAT-Lancet diet would cost an average 60% more than the cheapest nutritionally-adequate diets available worldwide. 

To determine global affordability, the researchers combined datasets on global food prices and household income from 2011, incorporating 744 foods and 159 countries. That helped them draw up the most economical version of the EAT-Lancet diet, and then to compare its cost to the mean household income across their vast dataset – thus revealing the huge chasm between rich and poor. For comparison, the researchers then measured this cost against alternative, cheaper diets that still met global essential nutrient requirements.

The findings underscore a deep conundrum: the inarguable importance of pushing for a sustainable diet at the global scale, but the huge challenge of making it accessible to everyone. So what’s the solution? It’s a big question that deserves a big, broad answer – which the researchers deliver.

Getting more people on board with a greener diet would require large-scale increases in earnings in poorer countries, more favorable pricing of sustainable foods, and financial assistance for people on the lowest incomes, they explain. 

Granted, none of that sounds easy – or even necessarily feasible in the short-term. But understanding the true extent of dietary inequality across the globe is a first step towards making green-eating – the subject of so much current attention – something that we might one day realistically achieve, at scale. 


Source: Hirvonen et. al. “Affordability of the EAT–Lancet reference diet: a global analysis.” Lancet Global Health. 2019.
Image: PxHere

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