A 2016 joint publication from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), Plates, pyramids, planet, highlighted Germany, Brazil, Sweden and Qatar as countries whose official dietary guidelines include sustainability. The report also mentioned Australia and the US as countries where the inclusion of sustainability was discussed, and the Netherlands, Estonia, the UK, France and the Nordic Region (including Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Åland) all have quasi-official guidelines that incorporate sustainability into dietary recommendations.
While national guidelines have typically focussed on sugar, salt and fat content of foods (think of the traffic light colour system applied to nutritional information on the front of most food packages), attention on sustainability has been lacking. Integrating sustainability within national dietary guidelines signals a growing awareness of how sustainability requires systemic action – and that includes the food we eat.
Food systems are a primary contributor to the ongoing climate and ecological crises. At the same time, they are also heavily impacted by environmental changes, which can have major health implications – such as the nutritional content of crops falling as global temperatures rise. Therefore, adopting sustainable diets can have an immense positive impact on the environment.
However, sustainability is not confined to the environment. A study published in 2019 by Selena Ahmed et al. reviewed 12 random country’s nutritional guidelines, measuring the extent to which these guidelines actively contribute to ecological, economic, sociocultural and political, and human health dimensions of sustainability. According to the study, Brazil’s dietary guidelines scored the highest Total Sustainability Score (TSS). The scores were calculated by Ahmed et al. across 32 sub-dimensions of sustainability. Brazil scored 74%, followed by Australia (69%), while the UK scored the lowest of the countries analysed, at approximately 13%.
This recent research emphasises that a holistic and systems approach to sustainability is required. Integrating sustainability into dietary guidelines is a positive steps forwards – 14 cities have also committed to promote the Planetary Health Diet, designed by the EAT-Lancet Commission – but further action is needed to transform the food system for the good of people and the planet.