How to get a country to change its national diet? This is what China has attempted by introducing the potato as a staple food as part of an effort to improve food security. In this episode of The Conversation Weekly, we talk to three experts about why countries need to change the diets of their citizens and what the optimal diet for our planet might be.
Chinese farmers plant the largest quantity of potatoes in the world, and the country produces around 20% of the world’s potato production. But while fresh potatoes have traditionally been part of China’s national diet, they are considered a vegetable rather than a staple, and China’s per capita potato consumption is below the global average.
In 2015, the Chinese government decided to try to change that. He introduced a policy of promoting potatoes as the country’s fourth staple food alongside rice, wheat and corn. As Xiaobo Xue Romeiko, a professor at the University of Albany, State University of New York in the United States, explains, behind this strategy are concerns about food security and the availability of arable land. “The potato is more versatile and can be grown on marginal land that is not suitable as arable land,” she says.
Potatoes also require less energy to grow and, according to her, to researchhave the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production in China, especially if they introduce higher-yielding varieties.
Other countries may need to follow China’s example. As pressures increase on the global food system due to climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, food security has become a central issue for many other governments. “Right now the food system is really under the highest stress,” says Paul Behrens, associate professor of environmental change at Leiden University in the Netherlands. In 2022, the UN Food Price Index, which measures monthly changes in the international prices of a basket of foodstuffs, has reached records.
Behrens says many of the responses from governments so far have been short-sighted. “I don’t see many governments considering the fundamental system transitions that are needed to truly secure food systems and make them more resilient to future climate change.” He argues that countries need to radically change their countries’ diets, especially in high-income countries where overconsumption of meat is driving much of the nexus crisis.
So what would an optimal, nutritious diet that respects planetary boundaries really look like? A group of researchers came together to find out and came up with the EAT-Lancet Dietalso known as the Planetary Health Diet.
One of them was Marco Springman, professor of climate change food and health systems at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK, and also a senior researcher at the University of Oxford. “You should eat no more than one serving of red meat per week. No more than two servings of poultry per week, no more than two servings of fish per week. And if you have dairy, no more than one serving a day,” he says. Counting that, that means being vegetarian or vegan two days a week.
For more on the responsibility of changing national diets, listen to the full episode at The Weekly Conversation Podcast.
This episode was produced by Mend Mariwany and Katie Flood, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. It was written by Mend Mariwany. Gemma Ware is the show’s executive producer. Our theme music is from Neeta Sarl.
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