Dietary advice from national governments aims to promote a healthy lifestyle. However, a new international study published in the Lancet Planetary Health finds that the assessment of national dietary guidelines should also take into account the environmental impact of food production, and that dietary guidelines affect not only the health of the human population but also the entire planet. In the Netherlands, changed guidelines could e.g. contribute to a significant reduction (-24%) in both land use for food production and greenhouse gas emissions from food production.
In the study, researchers from the universities of Wageningen University & Research, Zurich and Cornell and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL use the principles of circular food production systems to assess the environmental impacts and contributions of national nutrition guidelines. Research shows that the amount of animal products recommended in national dietary guidelines in Europe can be significantly reduced in favor of more plant-based foods, and that the main environmental impacts of food choices can be managed by other agricultural methods.
Although countries such as Germany and Sweden are already considering environmental sustainability in their dietary recommendations, the dietary guidelines in most countries are still primarily focused on human health. The study looked at five European countries (Bulgaria, Malta, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland) with different geographical features and cultural customs. The researchers found that reducing the recommended amount of animal products in the diet could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in most cases. In addition, the use of circularity principles in agriculture can achieve better land use. For example, the study shows that in Sweden and the Netherlands, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by 12% and 24%, respectively, and land use by 22% and 24%, respectively. At the same time, the same amounts of most nutrients return in a “circular diet”, as recommended by the dietary guidelines.
The importance of this
Environmental impact should play a crucial role in the formulation of national dietary guidelines, according to the authors of this study. Circular food production systems with an emphasis on closed food circuits are essential for producing food on less soil and with less environmental impact.
The authors argue that a complete transformation of the food system is necessary to realize the full environmental impact. These changes include significant reductions in total livestock and livestock products, investments in lower alternative costs of livestock breeds that are better suited to biomass, and a shift in the amount of mineral fertilizers and feed imports.
In this regard, according to the authors, “only through consistent transformations of food systems can the estimated environmental improvements be achieved.”
What do the experts say
“This study shows that not only the amount of animal products we eat is important, but also the type of animal product and also that dietary advice does not adequately inform consumers about this. – Renée Cardinals, second author of the paper and PhD candidate at Farming Systems Ecology Group at Wageningen University & Research
“The national dietary recommendations can not keep up with the changing climate. It’s crucial that governments redefine what ‘healthy eating’ really is. “- Hannah van Zanten, Assistant Professor at Wageningen University & Research and Visiting Professor at Cornell’s Department of Global Development
“In light of current and future challenges, such as climate change, it becomes inevitable that dietary recommendations within the boundaries of ‘healthy eating’ take sustainability and the environment into account. This is particularly important for animal products for which the recommendations should be revised and the recommended quantities reduced. “- Anita Frehner from the Swiss Research Institute for Organic Farming (FiBL)