NEW SUSTAINABLE diet guidelines are welcome but ministers need to make the advice official to help both food businesses and the public make informed choices, says Sue Dibb.
In July the government published a landmark report. But there was no press release and relatively little publicity. What marks out the blandly named “Sustainable Consumption Report” is that it includes a set of dietary principles that bring together healthy eating and environmental sustainability. These include advice to “moderate your meat consumption”, “eat more plant-based foods”, “choose fish sourced from sustainable stocks”, “drink tap water” and “value your food”.
The guidelines are part of DEFRA’s Green Food Project, an initiative to address the role that diet and consumption play in the sustainability of the whole food system. Eating Better and a number of our supporting organisations have been members of the working groups behind the report. Representatives
from the food and farming industry, foodservice sector and academics have also been involved.
As well as developing principles for healthy, sustainable diets, the working groups also addressed issues such as consumer behaviour and sustainable consumption. For too long health and environmental policies have not been joined up. The progress that these principles represent in acknowledging the importance of what we eat – not just for the health of the nation but also for the planet – is welcome.
Yet they do not yet have official status and ministers have not committed themselves to take forward the report’s conclusions.
One simple step towards healthy sustainable diets is eating less and better meat but, as the report finds, there is little official advice available to help consumers and food businesses. There is some generic advice: eating meat free meals or having meat-free days; eating meat in smaller portions; basing meals around plants; and simply using small quantities of meat to add flavor. These are all ways to help moderate our meat consumption.
The report also finds a lack of impartial information on sustainable sourcing and recommends that a credible, independent source would help consumers as well as food businesses, including those in the foodservice sector.
The report makes clear that government has an essential role to play in taking these recommendations forward, by providing leadership, reinforcing a sense of urgency, indicating priority areas for action and enabling others to deliver much- needed action. This leadership must be integrated, with key government departments for food, such as DEFRA and the Department of Health, working together more effectively.
The report also concludes that it is vital to address both food production and consumption in an integrated manner. This is a message that Professor Tim Benton, the UK champion for global food security, has also given government. He is reported to have warned government ministers that it is no longer good enough to think exclusively of ways the country could produce more food; instead government has to work on demand through changing the way we eat and wasting less food.
These are messages that Eating Better strongly supports. We have now written to the DEFRA minister David Heath to request that he takes action to implement the report’s conclusions and to ensure that the government adopts the healthy sustainable diet principles by the end of the year. By then we see no reason for not providing the public and the food industry with integrated advice on sustainable diets.
As the report concludes, the scale of the challenge means that the need for business, government and civil society to take concerted action is urgent. The Sustainable Consumption Report is therefore a welcome first step. But we will be monitoring process.
Sue Dibb is co-ordinator for the Eating Better: for a fair, green, healthy future alliance.