Should nutrition advice reflect international sustainability goals? Food accounts for one-fourth of global greenhouse gas emissions, so it’s a question that has garnered increasing attention from planetary health experts, who say that dietary guidelines present a golden opportunity to protect human and global health simultaneously.
Currently, we’re missing that opportunity. According to a new analysis published last week in the medical research journal the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), most governments’ dietary recommendations are neither sufficiently healthy nor sustainable. For the study, researchers from Oxford, Harvard, Tufts, and Adelaide Universities collated data from all available dietary guidelines, covering 85 of the world’s countries. They looked for specific language on what people should eat — phrases like “eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day” — and then used climate and epidemiological models to predict what would happen if the whole world ate that way.
What they found was that 95 percent of the world’s dietary guidelines are incompatible with at least one of the goals set by international climate and public health agreements like the Paris Agreement and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. For example, only 56 of the 85 countries’ guidelines (66 percent) were on track to meet the UN’s goal of reducing deaths from noncommunicable diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer by one-third by 2030, relative to 2010 numbers.
The global failure to provide rigorous dietary recommendations just from a sheer nutrition standpoint is “woefully shocking,” said Marco Springmann, a senior researcher in population health at Oxford University and the lead author of the study.
Also disappointing — but perhaps less shocking — were the dietary guidelines’ environmental deficiencies. After considering country- and crop-specific impacts for greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and fertilizer application, they found that 87 percent of the countries’ dietary guidelines weren’t compatible with emissions pathways to limit global warming to below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). Between 67 and 89 percent failed to meet other international environmental goals like limiting the use of fresh water or nitrogen fertilizer. Only two countries — Indonesia and Sierra Leone — gave recommendations that lined up with all of the environmental targets considered by Springmann’s team.
At the center of most of these failures were the food sector’s two biggest emitters: meat and dairy. Springmann said national governments have tended to shy away from specific recommendations about whether or how much of these products to eat, despite clear links to health…