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By Krisy Gashler
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  • Cornell Atkinson
  • Department of Global Development
  • Food
National dietary guidelines are a powerful tool to influence human and environmental health, yet less than half of such guidelines incorporate sustainability, according to a study in Lancet Planetary Health.

Many national governments worldwide have developed dietary guidelines to improve their citizens’ health. Yet less than half of them consider what those food choice guidelines mean for the health of the environment, according to a new study in the Lancet Planetary Health.

In the study, researchers assessed the food-based dietary guidelines of 83 countries and found that 37 included environmental sustainability considerations – a big improvement since 2016, when only four countries mentioned sustainability, yet still short of what governments could do to improve human and planetary health. The paper, “Environmental sustainability in national food-based dietary guidelines: a global review,” was published Dec. 7, 2022 in The Lancet Planetary Health.

“Food systems, environmental sustainability and the health of human populations are deeply interconnected,” said Mario Herrero, the Nancy and Peter Meinig Family Investigator in the Life Sciences, Cornell Atkinson Scholar, and director of Food Systems & Global Change at Cornell. “Consuming healthy diets needs to be accompanied by environmental protection. They are not mutually exclusive. There’s increasing recognition that national dietary guidelines should be broadened to also include environmental sustainability concerns.”

Governments around the world have long used dietary guidelines to provide country-specific guidance on what constitutes a healthy diet, including cultural considerations and dietary preferences – the first such guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture were published in 1894. These guidelines are designed to influence consumer behavior toward diets that will meet nutritional needs and minimize disease risks. They are often used to inform local and national policies, such as food purchasing within educational systems, prisons and the military.

In 2009, Sweden became the first country to include environmental considerations in its dietary guidelines, urging its citizens to eat locally produced foods and to avoid bottled water, among other things. By 2016, Brazil, Qatar and Germany also included sustainability in their guidelines.

In their study, the researchers assessed each country’s dietary guidelines against a set of criteria developed by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization for sustainable, healthy diets. Even though almost half of countries mention sustainability, there is great variability in how much it is discussed and what guidance is provided to consumers.

“The depth to which environmental sustainability was discussed varied and it was often restricted to general explanations of what a sustainable diet is,” said the paper’s lead author Genevieve James-Martin, a research dietician at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science agency. “Few guidelines addressed why sustainability is important, how dietary changes can be made or provided quantified advice for implementing sustainable diets.”

When sustainability was included in guidelines, it was most often mentioned in the context of respecting local culture and practices, and within sections on the human health benefits of increasing consumption of plant-based foods and decreasing consumption of animal products.

National policies greatly impact supply dynamics within food systems: for example, agricultural subsidies influence the price and availability of foods, which influences the foods consumers choose and eat, according to Herrero.

“Countries should take a more holistic approach to their dietary guidelines and integrate guidance and policies that would promote the purchase and consumption of more sustainable, healthy foods,” he said.

 

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the Department of Global Development.

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