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Post-pandemic diet shifts could avert millions of premature deaths

Covid-19 recovery plans should focus on healthier diets as much as economic growth to prevent huge numbers of avoidable deaths, research suggests.

vegetables in a market stall
Encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables post-pandemic could avert up to 26 million deaths every year by 2060.

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 suggest post-pandemic plans prioritising 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.

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.

Findings from the study could inform the development of strategies to improve global health and food affordability and help limit the impacts of climate change.

How different COVID-19 recovery paths affect human health, environmental sustainability, and food affordability: a modelling study

Broad impacts of dietary shifts

The team led by the University of Edinburgh used a leading-edge computer model to assess the impacts that different Covid-19 recovery plans could have between 2019 and 2060. Researchers modelled 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.

Adopting low-meat diets would make food more affordable, especially in low-income countries, where 50 per cent of earnings needed to have enough food in 2019 would fall to around 10 per cent 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.

Cutting meat consumption would also reduce agricultural land use and the need for irrigation and fertiliser, which can affect water quality and harm biodiversity, the teams says.

In 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 fertiliser use, and have less impact on making food more affordable, researchers say.

The COVID-19 recovery stimulus packages present an opportunity to reduce the impact of the food system on some of the most urgent global challenges, including diet-related diseases, the impact of the food system on the environment, and the affordability of food, especially for those on the lowest income. This analysis shows the dramatic benefit of increasing global cooperation and improving diets.

Aimen SattarPhD student, Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Edinburgh

The study is published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health. It was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, Natural Environment Research Council and the Scottish Government.

The work also involved researchers from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany.

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