‘Shocking’ global failure to promote eco-friendly diets

People being failed by governments not advising them to reduce meat-eating, study finds

Aerial view of a plant-based feast

It has long been known that governments aren’t overly concerned with the health of the planet, but it seems they don’t even care about the health of their people either – at least if you judge them according to their dietary guidelines.

A study published in the British Medical Journal has revealed that countries are failing to encourage their populations to move to eating nutritious and environmentally friendly plant-based food. In fact, Oxford University researchers who looked at the advice on food set out by 85 countries were dismayed to find that all are recommending people eat more red and processed meat than is good for them.

“Countries are surprisingly bad in helping their populations to eat what they say is a good diet,” said Marco Springmann of Oxford University, who led the study. “It was really shocking.”

He pointed out that despite “the exceptionally high emissions and resource use” associated with meat and dairy, we are still not being urged to consume less. It was “essential” official dietary advice kept pace with the mounting evidence of the damage being done to the environment by our food choices, he added.

Only two counties – Sierra Leone and Indonesia – had national guidelines that would meet a World Health Organisation target to cut avoidable early deaths by a third as well as environmental goals linked to the Paris climate agreement to limit global heating to a rise of no more than 2C. The guidelines of 74 countries fell short of the Paris benchmark.

The study also looked at the extent to which countries could benefit from following the “planetary health diet” created by the Eat-Lancet Commission in 2019 to cut climate change emissions, “nurture human health and support environmental sustainability”.

In the UK, for example, 104,000 lives could be saved and food-related emissions cut by 70 per cent if the planetary health diet were adhered to. Australia could save 31,000 lives and cut emissions by 86 per cent, and America 585,000 lives, with a 74 per cent fall in emissions.

The study recommends that new guidelines be written in accordance with the science, including imposing “stringent” limits on beef and dairy in countries that overindulge. It is vital, however, according to Springmann, that governments commit to following up on the advice.

Programmes that promote healthy eating “really need much bigger investment”, he said, while food companies and the entire food system needed “much stronger regulation”.