The first official recommendations for a diet that is both healthy and good for the environment are published today, and they are likely to be seen as an assault on the UK’s current food system.
To fight climate change and tackle the growing crisis of diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, British consumers must cut down on meat and dairy produce, reduce their intake of processed foods and curb waste.
These are the three priorities identified in a report by the government’s independent advisory body on sustainability, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), which calls for radical changes in patterns of consumption.
The report – which will dismay many in the livestock and processed food industries – will feed into all government departments and procurement agencies. Well-placed sources say it has created tension between Whitehall departments and advisers over its potential impact.
The study acknowledges that cutting processed food and reducing consumption of intensively-produced meat and dairy foods could lead to a shrinking of the UK food and drink industry.
The UK’s retail supply system would also be affected – the SDC report recommends that people reduce energy consumption by shopping more on foot or over the internet and that they replace bottled water with tap water.
While about 18% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions are related to food and drink consumption and production, the industry is the single biggest manufacturing sector in the UK, accounting for 7% of GDP and employing 3.7m people. The recommended shift away from meat and dairy to more seasonal and field-grown (as opposed to glasshouse-grown) vegetables and fruit would also hit the UK’s already hardpressed livestock farmers.
The way that farmland is used would have to change. Grass-fed rather than grain-fed animals are a more sustainable use of resources, the report says. There should be “an increase in consumption of foods produced with respect for wildlife and the environment, eg organic,” it adds. The SDC also highlights soya and palm oil as “hotspots” of the sort of consumption that damages the environment while providing calories of low nutritional value. It estimates that 70,000 premature deaths in the UK could be avoided if diets matched healthy guidelines.
Figures released yesterday by the NHS information survey showing that almost one in four boys and more than one in five girls in England are overweight or obese at the start of their school lives added urgency to the debate. SDC commissioner Professor Tim Lang said the recommendations represented the first coherent advice on a sustainable diet. “So far we’ve had fragmented and contradictory thinking on what dietary intakes should be. Advice to consumers ought to change and stop compartmentalising issues.
“Cutting down on meat and dairy, eating only sustainably sourced fish, fruit and vegetables, would all help reduce the impact of our food system as well as improving health,” he said.
The government’s approach to addressing the priorities in the report has been “mixed”, according to the SDC. Food waste and consumers’ shopping have received high-profile attention but cutting meat and dairy and junk food has not, it argues.
Recommended diet for a warming planet
1 Cut consumption of meat and dairy products
Health benefits: Reduces incidence of cardiovascular disease, of some forms of cancer, and of animal-borne infections. Environmental benefits: Large reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, slowing of deforestation, freeing of farm land for other use, freeing of water resources, slowing loss of biodiversity, lower food prices and cheaper diets, higher employment. Negative impacts: Decline in UK and global livestock industry, potential increase in deficiencies of iron, calcium and zinc.
2 Cut consumption of processed foods and drinks, especially fatty, sugary ones and stimulant drinks
Health benefits: Reduced obesity, reduced tooth decay, likely to particularly improve health of low income groups. Environmental benefits: Cut in GHG emissions from energy-intense production of highly processed foods and bottled water. Reduced land use. Negative impacts: Cut in size of UK food manufacturing industry.
3 Reduce waste
Consume no more calories than needed, accept different standards of food quality and that some foods may not always be available in UK. Health benefits: Cut in obesity problems, cheaper diet would benefit poor particularly; less air pollution from food freight, less food poisoning. Environmental benefits: Reduced GHG emissions, reduced waste in agriculture, reduced imported food and associated emissions. Negative impacts: Cut in size of food and drink and supply industry, could increase consumption of processed fruit and vegetables of lower nutritonal quality, reduction in trade with developing countries.
Other recommended changes:
• Eat more fruit and vegetables
• Eat only fish from sustainable stocks
• Eat more foods produced with respect for wildlife and environment• Shop on foot or on internet and cook and store food in energy-saving ways
• Drink tap water, not bottled water
Source: SDC advice to government on priority elements of sustainable diets, December 2009