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EAT-Lancet, an Ideal Diet Meant to Improve Human Health, Isn’t Affordable for 1.58 Billion People

Affordability of the universal diet only increases in East, Pacific, Latin America where only less than 15 per cent of the populations may be unable to afford it.

Aditya Sharma | News18.com@aditya_shz

Updated:November 12, 2019, 10:56 AM IST
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EAT-Lancet, an Ideal Diet Meant to Improve Human Health, Isn’t Affordable for 1.58 Billion People
Representative image.

New Delhi: The international food security discourse vis a vis the goal towards universal public health has a new deadlock – affordability. The EAT-Lancet universal diet, meant to improve human and planetary health, has been found to be unaffordable for close to 1.58 billion people across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, according to a new study.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University in their study ‘Affordability of the EAT-Lancet reference diet: a global analysis’, have for the first time calculated “the cost of foods needed for healthy and sustainable diet across the globe”.

William Masters, senior author of the study and economist at Tufts, pointed that EAT-Lancet’s “pioneering benchmark diet… deliberately did not take its cost into account.”

Earlier in January, the EAT-Lancet Commission of Food, Planet and Health had published a report recommending a universal diet for a “radical transformation of the global food systems” to achieve planetary health for 10 billion people by 2050.

The diet provided a calorie consumption of 2,503 kcal per day with small servings for animal sources foods and large servings for fruits and vegetables, as is in high-income countries. Based on their nutritional content and environmental affect, the EAT-Lancet report specified which food groups may be substituted for each other, as per region specific availability and consumption practices.

Researchers at IFPRI and Tufts University found that the recommended diet was “64 per cent costlier than the lowest-cost combination of foods that would provide a balance mix of 20 essential nutrients.” The diet is richer in animal-source foods and fruits and vegetables than is required for nutrient adequacy.

In addition, the quantities recommended for consumption are much higher than presently consumed in low-income countries. The global median of the proposed diet will cost 2.84 USD per day, said Kalle Hirvonen, lead author and development economist at IFPRI in Ethiopia.

“In low-income countries, that amounts to 89.1 per cent of a household’s daily per capital income, which is more than people can usually spend on food,” she added. In high-income countries, the same diet costs only 6.1 per cent of per-capita income.

Cost of Unaffordability

Countries in the developing world do not earn as much as half the cost of the recommended diet. For instance, in the South of Sahara - the most unaffordable region – nearly 57 per cent of people earn lesser than the local cost of the EAT-Lancet diet. Similarly, in South Asia, 38.4 per cent of the population earns lesser than 2.84 USD, while Middle East and North Africa are 19.4 per cent, the study found.

Affordability of the universal diet only increases in East, Pacific, Latin America where only less than 15 per cent of the populations may be unable to afford it. In relative terms, the diet is most suited for the per capita income of Europe, Central Asia and North America.

“Although 1.58 billion is a lot of people, it is actually a conservative lower limit on the total number who cannot afford the diet recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission. The cost of food preparation and of non-food necessities ensure that an even larger number of people cannot afford that kind of healthy diet,” Masters said in a release.

A large part of the cost of this diet lies in its goal to double the “consumption of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, and a greater than 50 per cent reduction in global food consumption of less healthy foods such as added sugars and red meat”. That, the consumption of potatoes (293 per cent) and red meat (288 per cent) is way beyond the recommended “health boundary” globally, is a cause for concern in the report.

The cut down on the consumption of red meat (638 per cent), potatoes (171 per cent), chicken (234 per cent) and eggs (268 per cent) is especially focused in North America. However, reducing the “diet gap” globally via “proposed boundaries” within which the global food production must stay within must not be proposed without considering the income and affordability of each country, authors of the study have argued.

Local Affordability

According to the study’s global analysis, fruits and vegetables (31.2 per cent) make up the largest part of the 2.84 USD cost, followed by legumes and nuts (18.7 per cent) and meat, eggs and fish (15.2 per cent). The share of fruits and vegetables decreased from 35 per cent to 26.7 per cent for high-income countries to low-income countries respectively, but are relatively higher for lower income given their per capita income.

However, the diet’s largest share in lower income countries came from animal sources food groups (dairy, meat, eggs and fish) at 32.8 per cent. The same was lowest for upper-middle-income countries at 26.2 per cent.

“Even if many poor consumers were to aspire to consume healthier and more environmentally sustainable foods, income and price constraints frequently render this diet unaffordable. Increased earnings and safety-net transfers, as well as systemic changes to lower food prices, are needed to bring healthy and sustainable diets within reach of the world’s poor,” said Hirvonen.

Researchers at Tufts and IFPRI drew on retail prices for standardised items obtained through the International Comparison Program. They used prices for 744 food items in 159 countries and then identified the lowest-cost combination of items in each country. To compare food cost with per capita income, the study drew on data from the World Bank’s PovcalNet system.

Although the study recognises the positive impact of the EAT-Lancet diet, it asks for a renewed approach to it. It suggests looking at combination of higher income and lower prices, tastes and habits, and nutritional knowledge while making changes to dietary preferences.

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