New study makes case for addressing sustainability and climate change when promoting good nutrition

19 May 2016


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.

Tara Garnett, who leads the Food Climate Research Network and is co-author on the report, said that there "are key elements that sustainable healthy eating guidelines should incorporate. Meat and dairy products, if eaten, should be consumed in moderation, and at the same time intakes of a diverse range of vegetables, legumes, fruits and unsalted nuts and seeds should increase. Small quantities of fish and seafood are good for health but can be environmentally problematic, so they should be from certified sources to protect the environment. Tap water should be prioritised over bottled drinks, particularly sugary ones."

“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,” added 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," said Tara Garnett. "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.”

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.”

Read the full report here

Watch our interview with Tara Garnett