Government health advisers are meeting this week to consider making sustainability a factor in the nation’s diet, alongside elements such as 5 a day recommendations, The Grocer can reveal.
The move could see issues such as land use and CO2 emissions judged alongside the nutrients contained in food. It follows Henry Dimbleby’ s recommendations in his National Food Strategy (NFS) report for major changes to the UK’s diet, including eating 30% less meat.
The government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) is to consider the move, which would echo measures already taken in Brazil and Sweden.
The committee has played a key role in the past in dictating public health policy on food and drink, most notably its decision in 2015 to slash the recommended amount of sugar in a daily diet to no more than 5% of energy intake. It was a precursor to the government’s Soft Drinks Sugar Levy, which led to reformulation across many sectors.
The NFS recommended the development of a UK ‘reference diet’ to address both health and sustainability, with the NHS Eatwell Guide seen as a vehicle to tackle the issues.
However, experts on the committee were told there was conflicting evidence about the potential impact of introducing environmental issues into diet advice.
“While adherence to UK dietary recommendations is estimated to reduce emissions by 30%, healthier products or diets do not always have a lower environmental impact,” say committee papers.
“For example, while there is a need to increase consumption of fruit and vegetables to meet UK dietary recommendations, the UK supply is reliant on imports, particularly from countries that are vulnerable to climate change and water scarcity.
“Fish recommendations and intakes are also a considerable environmental pressure.”
The move could also have major implications for plant-based diets, though experts are said to have previously expressed doubts as to whether it could be seen to exceed SACN’s remit.
In its response to the Dimbleby’s NFS report this week, the government said it would “strive to transform the food system in the long-term and unlock the benefits of healthier and more sustainable diets” as well as launch a review of land use for food production.
However, it said it would always seek to minimise the impact on food prices.
A report from the Sustainable Food Trust this week recommended the UK takes drastic measures to make diets more sustainable, including halving grain production by phasing out chemical inputs and using less land. It also recommended reducing pork and chicken production by 75% by using less grain.
“With the current cost of living crisis and rising worldwide hunger and food shortage, supercharged by the war in Ukraine, we face a choice in how to ensure national food security while also addressing the urgent issues of climate change, nature loss and human health,” said the trust’s CEO, Patrick Holden.
“We can either double down on industrial farming to produce food that is bad for our health, the environment and food security – or we can turn this crisis into an opportunity to accelerate more sustainable food and farming and ultimately ensure everyone has access to healthy, sustainable food.”