Food guidelines offer opportunities to protect the planet

Food guidelines

What we eat matters not just for our health, but for the planet, too. Yet only a handful of pioneering governments have issued guidelines promoting “win-win” diets that can help tackle two of the most urgent challenges of our time: good nutrition for all and addressing climate change.

This is the key conclusion from a new study published today by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), which is part of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford.

Plates, Pyramids, Planet evaluates government-issued food guidelines from 83 countries, looking in particular at whether they link to environmental sustainability.  At the time the study was conducted, only four countries’ recommendations – Brazil, Germany, Sweden and Qatar – drew connections to the threats posed by modern food production systems and the dietary patterns that drive them. Two more – the Netherlands and the United Kingdom – have since taken steps to incorporate environmental considerations into their food guidelines.

The low number of countries overall signals a missed opportunity for many countries to promote diets and food systems that are not only healthy but sustainable, the study argues.

“Growing numbers of people now understand that diets rich in whole-grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables – with reduced consumption of meat  and smaller quantities of high-fat and high-sugar foods – are good for our bodies. There is also ample evidence showing that such diets have much lower environmental impacts than the unhealthy and unsustainable eating patterns that are still prevalent,” explains lead author Carlos Gonzales-Fischer of FCRN. “By eating well for our own personal health, we’re also doing right by the planet.”

“Between the new Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement, the international community is making a clear push to position sustainability at the heart of planning and decision making,” adds Anna Lartey, Director of FAO’s Nutrition and Food Systems Division. “Specifically SDG 2 makes a clear link between the needs for healthy nutrition and sustainable agriculture, and it’s time that dietary guidelines reflect that relationship.”

The study shows that most governments have yet to issue national dietary advice, and this lack is particularly apparent in low income countries. For example, only five countries in Africa have such guidelines. Most existing guidelines still fail to consider the environmental impacts of dietary choices.

The study emphasises that, to have a real effect on food consumption, dietary guidelines need to have clear links to food policies that are actually implemented, such as school and hospital meal standards and advertising and industry regulations.

“Dietary guidelines are an essential first step. They provide a vision at national level of how we could and should be eating. But often the connection with practical policies on the ground is absent, or unclear,” says Tara Garnett of FCRN and co-author of the report.

The report’s overarching recommendation is that countries that already have dietary guidelines should begin a process of incorporating sustainability into them and that, as Garnett explains “those countries that do not already have them are in a unique position to develop integrated guidelines from the outset.”

 

The Food Climate Research Network is an interdisciplinary and international network operating at the intersection of food, climate, and broader sustainability issues. Its mission is to foster the informed dialogue and critical thinking needed to build mutual understanding and collective action on food systems sustainability. For more information visit www.fcrn.org.uk or follow FCRN on Twitter @FCRNetwork

About FAO

FAO leads international efforts to defeat hunger. It helps countries to modernize and improve agriculture, forestry and fisheries practices and ensure good nutrition for all. FAO focuses special attention on developing rural areas, home to 70 percent of the world’s poor and
hungry people. For more information visit: www.fao.org or follow FAO on Twitter @FAOnews