Summary: Encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables, and reduce meat intake could avert up to 26 million deaths per year and make food more affordable.
Source: University of Edinburgh
Encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables post-pandemic could avert up to 26 million deaths every year by 2060, a study has found.
Premature deaths from diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cancer—conditions that are also risk factors for COVID-19 patients—could be prevented by including measures to reduce global meat consumption in recovery plans, researchers say.
Reducing the amount of meat eaten globally would also make food more affordable—particularly in low- and middle-income countries—and be better for environment, the analysis shows.
The findings suggest post-pandemic plans prioritizing economic recovery above all else would lead to millions more deaths linked to poor diet, be worse for the environment and do less to reduce food costs.
Governments around the world have committed trillions of pounds to recover from the unprecedented impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, researchers have carried out the first global analysis of the long-term effects of different recovery plans on global health, the environment and the cost of food.
The findings could inform the development of strategies to improve global health and food affordability and help limit the impacts of climate change.
A team led by Edinburgh researchers used a leading-edge computer model to assess the impacts that different COVID-19 recovery plans could have between 2019 and 2060. Researchers modeled four post-pandemic scenarios and considered how the global food system would be affected by each of these.
Their findings show plans that include dietary shifts toward less meat and more fruit and vegetables could prevent 2600 premature deaths per million people by 2060. With the world’s population projected to be more than 10 billion by 2060, this could potentially avert 26 million deaths that year alone, the team says.
Adopting low-meat diets would make food more affordable, especially in low-income countries, where 50% of earnings needed to have enough food in 2019 would fall to around 10% by 2060.
Cutting meat consumption would also reduce agricultural land use and the need for irrigation and fertilizer, which can affect water quality and harm biodiversity, the teams says.
By contrast, recovery plans focused solely on restoring economic activity to pre-pandemic levels could lead to as many as 780 extra deaths per million in 2060—almost eight million deaths that year alone, based on population projections.
These strategies would also increase land, irrigation and fertilizer use, and have less impact on making food more affordable, researchers say.
How different COVID-19 recovery paths affect human health, environmental sustainability, and food affordability: a modelling study
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived at a time of faltering global poverty reduction and increasing levels of diet-related diseases, both of which have a strong link to poor outcomes for those with COVID-19. Governments responded to the pandemic by placing unprecedented restrictions on internal and external movements, which have resulted in an economic contraction. In response to the economic shock, G20 governments have committed to providing US$14 trillion stimuli to support economic recovery. We aimed to assess the impact of different COVID-19 recovery paths on human health, environmental sustainability, and food sustainability.
We used LandSyMM, a global gridded land use change model, to analyse the impact of recovery paths from COVID-19. The paths were illustrated by four scenarios that represent different pandemic severities (including a single or recurrent pandemic) and alternate modes of recovery, including a transition of food demand towards healthier diets that result in changes to the food system: (1) solidarity and celery, (2) nothing new, (3) fries and fragmentation, and (4) best laid plans. For each scenario, we modelled the economic shocks of the pandemic and the impact of policy measures to promote healthier diets in the years after the COVID-19 pandemic, including the supply of and demand for food, environmental outcomes, and human health outcomes. The four scenarios use established future population growth and economic development projections derived from the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways 2. We quantified the outcomes from more societally cooperative pandemic responses that result in reduced trade barriers and improved technological development against less cooperative responses.
Repeated pandemic shocks (the fries and fragmentation and best laid plans scenarios) reduce the ability of the lowest income countries to ensure food security. A post-pandemic recovery that includes dietary transition towards the consumption of less meat and more fruits and vegetables (the solidarity and celery scenario) could prevent 2583 premature deaths per million in 2060, whereas recovery paths that are focused on economic recovery (the fries and fragmentation scenario) could trigger an additional 778 deaths per million in 2060. The transition of dietary preferences towards healthier diets (the solidarity and celery scenario) also reduces nitrogen fertiliser use by 40 million tonnes and irrigation water by 400 km3 compared with no dietary change in 2060 (the nothing new scenario). Finally, the scenario with dietary transition increases the affordability of the average diet.
The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is most visible in low-income countries, where a reduction in growth projections makes a greater difference to the affordability of a basic diet. A change in dietary preferences is most impactful in reducing mortality and the burden of disease when income levels are high. At lower income, a transition towards lower meat consumption reduces undernourishment and diet-related mortality.
The Global Food Security’s Resilience of the UK Food System Programme project, with support from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, Natural Environment Research Council, and the Scottish Government.