21 May 2020
Feeding the Anthropocene: A Q&A with Rami Zurayk
Published online 28 January 2019
A report calls for the reshuffle of food production and diets to improve people and planetary health. Rami Zurayk, a Lebanese soil scientist involved in drafting the report, tells us what it means for the Middle East’s diet and food production.
The goal is nothing short of feeding ten billion people nutritious, healthy food by 2050 while preventing a collapse of the planet’s ecosystems. The EAT-Lancet Commission report1 , which presents itself as radical and disruptive, is the outcome of three years of work by 37 experts and scientists. Underpinned by solid scientific targets on both healthy diets and sustainable food production, it calls for immediate action.
The report advocates for sustainable agricultural intensification by reducing yield gaps on current cropland (the difference between a crop’s maximum potential and real yields), improving fertilizer and water application, implementing climate change mitigation measures, halving food loss and food waste, and protecting the biodiversity that lives within agricultural systems.
The commission’s definition of what a healthy diet is uncompromising. Meat and animal protein should only make up a tiny fraction of a diet that is essentially based on large quantities of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses and grains.
Because this report has been elaborated with a global outlook, translating its recommendations to a specific geopolitical, agricultural and cultural context can be tricky.
To understand how these recommendations could alter the way food is consumed and produced in the Middle East, Nature Middle East spoke to Rami Zurayk, a Lebanese soil scientist and EAT-Lancet commissioner. A professor at the faculty of agricultural and food sciences at the American University of Beirut, Zurayk has authored an extensive body of work on food politics in the Middle East.
What does a typical food plate look like in the Middle East today?
What you would have in a refugee camp in Lebanon is very different from what you would eat in an upscale restaurant in Beirut. However, historically, we haven’t been doing too badly dietary-wise in this region, especially in the countries that border the Mediterranean. Here, the diet is rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Meat and animal proteins have traditionally been used with parsimony, to flavour dishes and provide essential nutrients. It is the shift from this diet to a more western, industrialized one that has messed up the system. While countries that have exported their diets to us are reverting to our old one, we are resolutely sticking to the new diets we have received. And this isn’t the same diet for the rich and the poor: the poor will have a diet rich in sugar and fats, and the well off will rely heavily on animal proteins and red meats.
Should Middle Easterners eat less meat then?
Data from the region shows that a lot of people have a diet that is deficient in animal protein, which negatively impacts their health. But one has to be careful about blending together all the social classes. Our report needs to be enriched locally with a fine-grained picture necessary to implement health and sustainable targets in a region struck by water problems, high rates of land degradation, that produces a large chunk of the fossil fuels consumed globally, and where disparities in wealth are immense. All this has an influence on the foods consumed.
Could small farmers in the region benefit from the sustainable intensification recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission?
This is a big issue for our region. Our report addresses how we should produce food, but not the scale at which it should be produced, whether by a small landholder practicing sustainable agriculture or by a corporation adopting sustainable intensification techniques. There is a very strong argument for keeping production at the level of the small farmer. However, the number of smallholders involved in full time farming is decreasing. What do we do when small farmers stop farming? There are about 150 million people living in rural areas in the Middle East and North Africa region today. When farming does not provide sufficiently for decent livelihoods, people normally exit it. But where should they go?
The studies that need to happen now should focus on how to domesticate our report at the level of different Arab countries.
Would adopting those principles of sustainable intensification reduce food imports in the Middle East?
Today, the Middle East is the largest food importer in the world, and it looks like we are going to still have to import food: nobody here is talking about self-sufficiency. There is no country in our region except perhaps Sudan, that can actually do that even after changing their diet. Those countries that have enough money to import food will keep doing it. But what about Yemen? Where will it get the hard currency needed to import food? The report provides a road map for action. For researchers, it clearly shows the gaps in local knowledge that need to be filled, such as what are the limits to sustainable water use at country as well as at watershed level. For activists, it offers science-based targets related to diets, waste and food production systems that they can lobby for. We must learn to accept that the health of the planet and human health are co-dependent, and that all countries and people need to act in unison if we are to save humans and planet. But the world is not a fair and safe space for all. Only if we can trust each other not to use food as a weapon, but as a means of global peace, can we convince those countries that keep pushing food production beyond environmental limits that there are other options, based on fair exchange mechanisms.
- EAT-Lancet Commission report: https://eatforum.org/content/uploads/2019/01/EAT-Lancet_Commission_Summary_Report.pdf