New dietary guidelines for Americans are due next year. Revised every five years, they’re outcomes of a long process. Outsiders may marvel at how this becomes heated; surely scientists can agree? Actually, they argue, but they also listen to evidence. Trouble often comes when business interests are threatened. When the then 15 EU member states tried to pool their guidelines in 2000, a conference was held. After heated debates, Eurodiet was published. I’ve never heard it referred to since.
This won’t be the fate of the American Guidelines. This is a five-yearly battleground of big business and big science. Eighteen months ago, the US Institute of Medicine hosted a conference to debate whether the 2015 guidelines should address the environment. I was there to give a view from Europe and supported the case for ‘yes’. Firstly, if people follow nutrition advice, environmental footprints diminish. Secondly, consumers want clear advice on health AND environment. The US meeting agreed.
“Businesses should realise self-interest and the public good can coincide”
That debate has continued. The US government is noting the tentative steps taken by European member states to address sustainability in both food supply and consumption. Last week, Brazil presented its new guidelines, which have strong eco-tendencies.
In 2011-13, Australia began to inject environmental advice into its guidelines, but formidable meat and grain lobbies undermined it and the final version made no reference to meat’s climate, land or water footprints. A narrow version of business interest triumphed.
My view is that this is short-termism and bad news for the food business. Like it or not, climate change, water and biodiversity loss are results of the over-processed diets we’ve become accustomed to. This week in Rome, the UN’s International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) summarised the health consequences too; clinical obesity is catching up global figures for malnutrition.
In Victorian times and in the 1930s, vested interests also resisted change. Eventually they realised taxes, sewers, clean air, water and good food for all made sense. Enough businesses realised that self-interest and the public good can coincide. Short-termism can be defeated.
Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University, London