You have probably heard people say we are entering a New Age.
It turns out we’re already there. It even has a scientific name: the Anthropocene, which comes from the Greek roots anthropos = human, and kainos = new, recent.
Here’s how the term is defined in a new report issued by EAT, a nonprofit focused on “transforming our global food system,” in cooperation with the British medical journal The Lancet. The Anthropocene refers to “a geological epoch that is characterised by humanity being the dominant driver of change on Earth.” Meaning now.
When did this age start? No one quite agrees, but a common date given is between 1750 and 1780—the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
It’s generally accepted that that human activity is affecting—and harming—
the environment in major ways. The Lancet report, entitled Food in the Anthropocene, analyzes how human food supplies should be managed to mitigate damage to the earth.
The idea is to produce the greatest amount of the healthiest food with the least damage to the environment.
The report has a rather black-and-white approach to foods. It labels some, notably sugar and red meat, as “unhealthy” and others, including “nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes” as “healthy.”
To sort through the report’s assertively flavorless language: it is, in principle, possible to feed 10 billion people (the projected population of the earth by 2055, according to the Pew Research Center) sustainably, but only if more or less everyone changes their diets—in some cases radically.
What should everybody be eating? They should get about a third of their daily calories from whole grains (rice, wheat, corn, and others). Another quarter should come from protein sources such as nuts and legumes, and about a sixth from fats, especially unsaturated oils. Red meat? They told you it was unhealthy, so this ideal diet offers a mere 7 grams (0.2 ounces) of beef or lamb per day. A McDonald’s fan would be able to have a Quarter Pounder only once every twenty days.
Fruits and vegetables are welcomed. “They are,” the report says, “an essential source of many micronutrients, including provitamin A for prevention of night blindness. Substantial evidence indicates that fruit and vegetable consumption is also important for prevention of cardiovascular disease: benefit is mostly achieved by consuming about five servings a day.”
Is this diet feasible? Apparently. The much-touted Mediterranean diet comes close, as do traditional diets in Indonesia, Mexico, China, and West Africa. “The culinary experiences of different regions provide many opportunities to learn new ways of preparing diets that are healthy and enjoyable,” the report brightly suggests.
Food in the Anthropocene is ultimately about public policy, a subject generally regarded (no doubt even by some who specialize in it) as rather boring. Nevertheless, this subject is worth paying attention to, because it does—however fitfully—guide the attitudes, behavior, and spending of governments.
Very similar goals were set out in a resolution enacted by the UN General Assembly in 2015 called “Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” The Mexican Department of Agriculture, Ranching, Rural Development, Fisheries, and Food has issued similar guidelines as well.
We can expect agendas like these to be driving world food and agricultural policies for the foreseeable future, with, of course, the usual pattern of advances and retreats.
This report, like many others of its kind, tends to be rather dualistic, somewhat simplistically pushing food categories into the slots of “healthy” or “unhealthy” with only the slightest nod to regional or individual needs.
The produce industry is fortunate in one way: its commodities have been slotted under the “healthy” rubric, so fruit and vegetable production will be favored or at least not hindered.
The other side of the issue is environmental impact. Here the industry can continue to expect pressure for sustainability on all fronts, so there will be constant emphasis on reducing chemical inputs and on a thriftier use of water and other resources. It’s smart to be aware of where you are on this continuum and what changes you may want to make in the future.