Food that’s better for all of us and the planet

Summit looks at production, health, sustainability, and social justice

Forget the food pyramid, or even the FDA’s more recent ChooseMyPlate initiative, aimed at getting Americans to eat healthier. If our species and our planet are to survive, humanity needs to refocus on a diet that encompasses not only fruits and vegetables but also sustainability and social justice, according to participants at a wide-ranging summit on food production, diet, and sustainability in Boston on Wednesday.

Called “Food, Farms, Fisheries, and Forests,” the daylong event at the University of Massachusetts Club was presented by the American Farmland Trust and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, in partnership with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Forest, Harvard Law School, Harvard Kennedy School, and Food Solutions New England. The purpose was to bring together experts on the environment and nutrition as well as people focused on social justice and its implications for feeding the population.

Walter Willett, M.P.H. ’73, Dr.P.H. ’80, opened the discussion by outlining the dangers posed by a business-as-usual approach. Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said the global community faces the challenge of feeding a population expected to hit 9.8 billion by 2050. Those findings emerged from the international EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health he chaired over the past three years.

“The standard response is to increase food production,” Willett said. But simply producing more food may not be the best idea, as there is strong evidence that our current diet is killing us. “Obviously and conspicuously, obesity is increasing” in both adults and children, Willett noted. The results include more obesity-related cancers and heart disease. “In three out of the last five years, life expectancy in the United States has fallen,” he noted. “Life expectancy has decreased for two years in a row.” (Slight increases were noted in 2018 and 2019.)

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