Researchers have analysed the government-issued food advice from 83 countries and found that almost all of them failed to consider the environmental impacts of dietary choices.
Also concerning was the discovery that not all countries have official food based dietary guidelines (FBDGs) of any kind, sustainability oriented or otherwise.
“We identified just 83 countries with FBDGs out of a possible total of 215,” the researchers noted. Their absence is particularly apparent in low income countries – for example only five countries in Africa have guidelines.
Even where guidelines do exist, they are “not always easy to find”, they concluded in Plates, Pyramids and Planets, a report published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN).
Sweden a star
The purpose of the study was to identify forward-thinking governments, but they had to look hard. 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.
Most guidelines that include sustainability note the high environmental impact of meat – with the exception of the Qatari guidelines – but the advice “often lacks specificity”, with any recommended maximum levels in line with solely health-oriented guidelines.
Sweden is clearly amongst the most advanced. Its guidelines, published in April 2015, embrace environmental considerations from the outset. “… what you eat isn’t just important to your own personal wellbeing; it’s important to the environment as well.”
As well as highlighting some of the standard advice, the Swedish National Food Agency (NFA, Livmedelsverket) also covers some of the more complicated topics, such as the “positive environmental impacts of free range beef and lamb” and the lower environmental impact of high fibre vegetables compared to salad greens (the latter being produced in greenhouses).
There’s even advice on which oils to consume. “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 (for example on old plantations),” NFA advises.
Outside those four countries others have “quasi-official” integrated advice, which stems from government-supported agencies but is not specifically government policy. The Netherlands and the UK are examples.
The UK’s dietary advice comes in the form of the new Eatwell Guide, which has this week been criticised as a “metabolic time-bomb” that is actually fuelling obesity. The guide has a lower environmental impact than the Eatwell Plate it replaced but does not go far enough to meet targets relating to carbon reduction.
Other countries have tried to align health and sustainability but hit a brick wall: in the US and Australia attempts to incorporate environmental considerations have reached an advanced stage but so far failed to gain government support.
This is a “missed opportunity” given that the characteristics of diets with low environmental impacts – for example, moderate consumption of meat, very limited consumption of foods high in salt, fat and sugar, small quantities of sustainably-sourced fish and more fruit and legumes – are consistent with good health, said FCRN.
FBDGs are just a “tiny part” of what’s needed, according to FCRN’s Tara Garnett, but they are nonetheless critical. “They have a role to play in providing a statement of intent – a vision of what ‘good’ looks like – which should then inform subsequent policies and actions,” she told FoodNavigator.
“The fact that so many [governments] have not, or have been wary of, saying anything too specific indicates that [these guidelines] are more than just a piece of paper.”