Incorporating environmental factors in food-based dietary guidelines

Brent Clothier writes…

So thinking about wine … and food.  What’s a sustainable diet? And does anybody care?

The Food Climate Research Network does.  They’ve just published a report on “Plates, Pyramids, Planet: Developments in national healthy and sustainable dietary guidelines. A state of play assessment” (you can find it here).

There are 83 countries around the world with official food-based dietary guidelines. But only four countries explicitly reference, or take into account, environmental factors in their guidelines – Germany, Sweden, Brazil & Qatar.

The FCRN report discusses these four in detail, along with the other countries’ guidelines that tacitly contain sustainability messages.

I found the Swedish guidelines to be particularly interesting.  Their home-page (which has an English-language option here) has a strong environmental message.

The main messages are:

  • High fibre vegetables have a lower environmental impact than salad greens. They tend to be grown outside (not in greenhouses). They are also more robust, which reduces waste due to damages during transport.

  • Although people should consume more seafood for health, many wild fish stocks are endangered or are harvested unsustainably, while aquaculture also has its problems. People should therefore buy ecolabelled products. Mussels can help reduce marine eutrophication.

  • One of the ways to increase physical activity is to use the stairs instead of the lift, and cycle or walk to work, and these behaviours can also reduce the environmental impact.

  • Cereals have a relatively small climate impact. Due to the high GHG emissions associated with rice, other grains and potatoes are a better choice for the environment.

  • Rapeseed oil and olive oil generally have a lower environmental impact than palm oil, but the relationship gets inverted when palm oil is produced without deforestation (e.g. in old plantations).

  • Dairy products have high environmental impacts since dairy cows produce methane. However, grazing animals can help bring about a “rich agricultural landscape and biodiversity”. Drinks made of oats and soya are ecofriendly, chose the ones enriched with vitamins and minerals.

  • Reducing meat consumption can benefit both health and the environment. By cutting down on quantity people may be able to afford to buy meat produced more sustainably, with attention paid to the welfare of the animals. Different meat types have different climate impacts: poultry has the smallest impact on climate, followed by pork. On the other hand, free range beef and lamb can also have other positive environmental effects – animal grazing can help maintain diverse agricultural landscapes and support biodiversity.

  • Sweets can also have a high environmental impact: a bag of jelly beans actually has as much of a climate footprint as a small portion of pork. These are referred to in the report as an “unnecessary environmental impact”.

There’s much to ponder and debate there!  The report concludes with a couple of very important points.

Critically, most of the work has been done on environmental sustainability, and from the perspective of developed countries. We urgently need more research focusing on the broader social and economic dimensions of sustainable diets and on developing countries.



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