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Eliminating waste, cutting fatty and sugary foods and reducing meat and dairy will benefit health and environment

11 December 2009

A new report published today (Friday 11 December) by the Sustainable Development Commission finds that eliminating waste, cutting fatty and sugary foods and reducing meat and dairy consumption would make the biggest contribution towards improving health and reducing the environmental impacts of the food system.

Setting the Table: Advice to Government on priority elements of sustainable diets, commissioned by Defra, assessed the environmental and health impacts of changing patterns of food consumption. It concludes that there is strong evidence that many changes in consumption which benefit the environment also have the added advantage of improving nutritional health in the UK.

Our food chain and dietary choices have huge environmental impacts, as well as affecting our health. Around 18% of UK greenhouse gas emissions are related to food consumption and production. And an estimated 70,000 premature deaths in the UK could be avoided if our diets matched nutritional guidelines.

The SDC's research found evidence that consuming only fish from sustainable stocks, eating more seasonal food, cutting out bottled water, shopping on foot or over the internet and consuming more wildlife-friendly, organic foods would also contribute towards a more sustainable diet. However, the most significant health and environmental benefits were from reducing meat and dairy, cutting food and drink of low nutritional value – including fatty and sugary foods – and reducing food waste.

The Sustainable Development Commission is calling for all food advice generated across Government to incorporate environmental considerations as well as health guidance, and for sustainability criteria to be incorporated into public sector catering standards. It also recommends further research on particular sustainability 'hotspots' – including meat and dairy, fish, soy and palm oil – and how different methods of production can affect sustainability.

Tim Lang, Food Commissioner at the Sustainable Development Commission, said:

"For some time, consumers have been raising the problem of how to juggle competing demands between environment, health and social justice. They are right to do so. Our research found strong evidence of 'win-wins' in these areas, suggesting that a diet which is sustainable on multiple fronts – good for health, environment, social justice and economy – is possible.

"Cutting down on meat and dairy, and eating only sustainably sourced fish, fruit and vegetables, would all help reduce the impact of our food system, as well as improving health. We understand that this raises complex questions for companies, government and consumers, and more work remains to be done to address these issues. Life cycle assessments of different foods, methods of production and consumption patterns are all urgently needed. The good news is that the UK Government and industry realise this.

"Our report finds that there is already sufficient evidence to chart a direction for a sustainable food system. Advice to consumers ought to change, and stop compartmentalising health, environment and social issues. Where there are problems, let them be faced. That’s the spirit called for by this report, which is designed to build on the good work already going on in a wide range of different areas."

Setting the Table: Advice to Government on priority elements of sustainable diets was commissioned by Defra as part of its Food 2030 project.

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