The debate over sustainability in Australia’s dietary guidelines

In a pivotal move towards aligning Australia's Dietary Guidelines with global sustainability efforts, the council responsible for its...
February 28, 2024 Commentary
The debate over sustainability in Australia’s dietary guidelines

In a pivotal move towards aligning Australia’s Dietary Guidelines with global sustainability efforts, the council responsible for its development has recommended the inclusion of sustainability considerations in the upcoming review and renewal of the guidelines document for its projected publication in 2026.  

This shift in thinking underscores a growing recognition worldwide of the profound environmental impacts of our food systems and the need to consider food production alongside food consumption from a more holistic health perspective. As the global population heads toward 9.7 billion by 2050, the imperative to address sustainability within dietary guidelines becomes increasingly urgent.  

It is a controversial step that detractors have argued is beyond the remit of an organisation that should be focused on scientifically verifiable evidence around nutritional requirements and giving guidance on health-related matters only. Due to the influence dietary guidelines have on what we eat, the creators have a responsibility to ensure they are good for human health and the environment, both are intrinsically linked.   

It is almost universally accepted in the scientific community that changes to existing dietary guidelines are essential and could make a substantial difference if adopted. A 2020 University of Oxford study analysed the dietary guidelines of 85 countries and found that official dietary advice is harming the environment as well as people’s individual health. 

The 2013 version of the Australian guidelines erred against covering sustainability issues in the main text and, after bowing to industry and political pressures, moved all references to the appendices. It is a major shift in thinking to elevate concerns beyond individual health directly into the guidelines themselves. 

The latest recommendation by the National Health and Medical research Council (NHMRC) suggests that the guidelines should incorporate sustainability messaging. This approach mirrors that of several other nations, including Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, Qatar, Norway, Brazil, and Germany. In 2021, for the first time, the official Danish dietary guidelines, did not only guide Danish consumers on how to eat healthier, but also on how to eat in a more climate-friendly way with an aim to reduce food-related emissions by 70% by 2030. 

In 2022, the Lancet published a review of national food-based dietary guidelines and identified 17 countries that have produced consumer-facing documentation that addresses the environmental impact of food. Australia doesn’t make the list which includes countries as diverse as Iceland, Greece, and Venezuela. 

Should the recommendation go ahead, potential inclusions could more closely align the Australian Dietary Guidelines with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) ‘One Health’ movement which endeavors to take a unifying approach aiming to sustainably balance and optimise the health of people, animals and ecosystems. WHO takes the position that, “the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment (including ecosystems) are closely linked and interdependent”. 

The reasons for the amplification of sustainability messages are unequivocal. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) calculates that the hidden costs of our current industrialised food systems amount to at least US$10 trillion dollars (paired down from a calculated estimate of US$12.7 trillion). 

These “hidden costs” are not limited to the health-related costs associated with poor diets alone. Nevertheless, savings to health system funding would be substantial. A new analysis from the UK’s Office of Health Economics identified £6.7bn (AU$12.9bn) per year in savings from a shift to a more sustainable approach that emphasised an elevation of plant-based foods as the major component of human diet. The study calculated that in England alone, a major dietary shift could result in 2.1 million fewer cases of disease and a gain of more than 170,000 quality-adjusted life years. 

It is not yet determined whether the new Australian Dietary Guidelines will include considerations that extend beyond direct and indirect health benefits to humans in its consideration of sustainability. Belgium’s guidelines are considered the most far-reaching with considerations covering environmental impacts, biodiversity, antibiotic resistance and hormone use, food packaging, and food waste. 

The FAO factors into its calculations: the impact of emissions from agricultural activities on climate change; the consequences of nitrogen pollution from fertilisers and other sources; the strain on water resources due to agricultural practices; the effects of converting natural habitats for agriculture; and the social and economic implications of food insecurity.  

Arguably, Australia is well advanced in its attempts to mitigate many of the impacts of industrial food production on the environment with its focus on sustainable farming practices, its work on regenerative agriculture, and research undertaken by the CSIRO and other organisations into the future of sustainable protein supply using traditional and complementary protein sources. So, it is yet to be seen whether or not the ADGs will broaden into other areas of sustainability not related to health and nutrition. 

However, if the recommendation is taken onboard it could increase Australian consumers’ awareness of the environmental impacts of their diet and benefit their health. At the very least, it is hoped that the Guidelines will include evidence about the varying impacts of protein sources. It’s expected that the final guidelines will be objectively assessed, measured, and balanced and highlight the benefits of alternative and complimentary protein sources that, if plant-based, provide essential fibre whilst appealing to those seeking familiar and easily implemented dietary choices. 

The further possibility, which will be anticipated with growing interest, is whether or not the opportunity will be taken to help Australia do its bit to address climate change through food system transformation.

Approved by 143 nations, the COP28 UAE Declaration on Climate and Health underscored the significance of food systems in any mitigation of global warming. It highlighted the pressing need for addressing climate change urgently and shift to “sustainable healthy diets”. 

Existing food systems contribute between one quarter and one third of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tracking the dietary patterns and health of millions of people predominately living on a westernised diet in Europe, United States and Canada found that foods with the most substantial environmental footprints, frequently exhibit the most pronounced adverse effects on human health and risk of disease (for things like fatty liver disease, coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes, and stroke). It is this link between environmental impact of production and the health implications of consumption that will present a challenging bridge for the ADGs to cross.  

Australia would be taking a milestone step in extending its guidance around the nutritional components of a healthy diet to not only the sustainability of current food systems but also the environmental impact of food production. It remains to be seen how far across the bridge the NHMRC chooses to venture. Meanwhile, we must wait and see; the Guidelines are expected to be finalised in 2026. 

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