The future of food: interview with Dr Sandro Demaio

Authors: Philippa Simmonds, Kevin Antunes Lopes, Mia Harley, Lucy Owens

“Together with 30 scientists we are going to tell the world what they should be eating by 2050. This is a fairly audacious thing to do but its grounded on real evidence.”

A few weeks ago the authors had the opportunity to interview Dr Sandro Demaio; CEO of The EAT Foundation (EAT). Combining his medical knowledge with a flair for public relations (including a Netflix show and just under 10k followers on Instagram), Dr Demaio has an ambitious plan: to prescribe a global diet that is compatible with human health, both in terms of nutrition and avoiding climate change over 1.5 degrees centigrade. The landmark commission will be released by the Lancet next month, with the aim of providing a locally-adaptable blueprint that can guide cities and nations to make radical changes to their food systems.

EAT 1Dr Demaio was born and raised in Australia to a medical family with Italian heritage. He recalls a strong love of food that was passed down through the generations; as he embarked on his medical career, he became increasingly interested in the power of food to prevent or provoke non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, stroke and cancer. An impressive CV includes a PhD at the University of Copenhagen, post-doctoral research at Harvard, co-founding the social start-up NCDFREE, and a stint at the WHO head office in Geneva. Earlier this year, he became CEO of EAT, the organisation initially founded by Dr Gunhild A. Stordalen back in 2014.

According to their website, “EAT is a non-profit startup dedicated to transforming our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption and novel partnerships.” Up to now, they have focused their efforts on building credibility with key actors from science, policy and business sectors, aiming to sustain partnerships through creative engagements. When asked how radical their agenda is, Dr Demaio explained that EAT prides itself on being a small, agile organisation that works to promote radical change built on its credible reputation. “Creating a message that is clear and people can action versus still being true to science is quite a risky process…because we work with so many different types of stakeholders.”

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The EAT Team. Photo from EAT website.

We pressed him on this: what’s the biggest risk you have taken in terms of partnerships? “There are many different types of risk. Financial risks, reputation risks et cetera…One of the risks that we constantly have to be aware of is starting discussions around sensitive topics, such as meat consumption. While the science is pretty clear in showing that we need to reduce the meat we consume in many parts of the world…some parts need to eat more meat, in particular young women.”

So, to what extent do EAT’s goals align with those of the vegan movement? “For many people that want to be vegan, I fully support that, as long you have diversity in your diet then it is perfectly possible to healthy and vegan. But for most of us on the planet, it will actually be about eating the right amount of meat, the right quality of meat and not wasting any meat. These…principles are slightly more complex than simply pushing for an end to meat consumption.”

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Recent tweet calling out the climate impact of the COP24 menu

It will be fascinating to see how the EAT-Lancet commission addresses the challenges of intensive animal agriculture; its implications for nutrition, the environment, and rising antimicrobial resistance. Continuing with the tough questions, we returned to the topic of risks and enquired how EAT intends to manage its position as a Western organisation imposing a plan on developing countries- will this be viewed as a form of imperialism? “The EAT Lancet commission does prescribe an empirical diet for the entire planet, but this also includes the global North. It’s not saying that a certain part of the world has to eat this exact meal. It gives food subgroup recommendations, so a lot of flexibility….The most dramatic changes will need to be happening in the wealthiest parts of the world. Trade and multilateralism will be an important part of that.”

Sounds great, but how will this actually be achieved? “That process of translation is what we are trying to do with our local partners. C40 and the cities network is about trying to translate those scientific targets and how you achieve that in a local context, because depending on which city you are in it will be quite different. It might be about increasing agricultural subsidies, it might be about increasing taxes on unhealthy foods, it might be about changing urban planning. It also will rely on business networks…We try to figure out what role industry can play, how can we work together to develop solutions and technologies to get to the end point. 1 in 3 calories across the world is wasted and yet 830 million people go hungry and 2.1 billion are overweight or obese. Questions about how to achieve the goal of evening out these statistics have to come after we define what the goal actually is.”

Prescribing a global diet is certainly audacious, but in an era of increasingly catastrophic climate change, radical and disruptive plans will be vital to prevent enormous loss of human life and biodiversity. The real challenge will be in finding ways to adhere to the doctor’s orders.

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