Dietary guidelines issued by national governments aim to set a roadmap for consumers to live healthy. A new study, in which researchers from FiBL Switzerland were greatly involved, challenges national dietary guidelines assessments to include the environmental impact of food production, with implications for how dietary guidelines account not just for the health of the human population, but also the planet.

dietary guidelines
©Marion Nitsch

Animal food products are crucial for environmental impacts

While some countries such as Germany and Sweden do currently account for environmental sustainability in their nutritional guidance to citizens, for most nations, food-based dietary guidelines are designed strictly around human health and nutrition. The study, published on 13 June in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, explored five European countries – Bulgaria, Malta, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland – with different geographies and cultural habits. The researchers used the principles of circular food production systems to assess environmental consequences and nutritional contributions of national food-based dietary guidelines.

They found that reductions in the recommended amount of animal products in diets had the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in most cases. Additionally, the use of circularity principles in agriculture would allow for improved land use. The study found that Sweden and the Netherlands could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12% and 24% and reduce land use by 22% and 24%, respectively.

“Only by consistent transformations of food systems in this regard can the estimated environmental improvements be reached”

Environmental impacts must be critical considerations when devising national dietary guidelines, according to the study authors. Circular food production systems, which emphasize closed nutrient cycles, are essential to producing food on less land and with reduced environmental impacts.

A full transformation of the food system is needed

The authors suggest that for the full environmental impact to be realized, a full transformation of the food system is necessary. The changes include substantial reductions in total animal numbers and animal products, investing in livestock breeds that are better suited to low-opportunity-cost biomass, and a shift in the amount of mineral fertilizers and livestock feed imports. According to the authors, “Only by consistent transformations of food systems in this regard can the estimated environmental improvements be reached.”

In addition to FiBL, the University of Wageningen (Netherlands), Zurich (Switzerland) and Cornell (USA) were involved in the research project. It was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Dutch Research Council.

Source: New study shows that dietary guidelines need revision to account for environmental impact

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