Last week was a busy one in the world of food. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published their once-in-a-decade revisions to the Australian Dietary Guidelines. European Governments and businesses continued to reel from the horsemeat scandal sweeping through their food chains. And one of the UN’s Environment Programme’s scientists declared that the developed world should all be going ‘demitarian’–a new term for halving our consumption of meat.
It surprised us then that the media didn’t really join up the dots on these three issues – dots that overwhelmingly point us to reducing our meat consumption. In fact, the SMH did much the opposite, with a headline on the NHMRC report that was, “Red meat gets tick of approval for young women”. This misleading headline referred to a mere footnote in the report, about young women needing additional iron requirements during certain monthly periods. In contrast, the guidelines state that young men are consuming far too much red meat, that we should be all limiting our consumption of processed meat and there is convincing evidence to show that high consumption of red meat is associated with an increased risk of both colorectal and renal cancers. Not quite what the SMH would have us believe.
In relation the horsemeat scandal, there was a bit more discussion about the failings of the modern food system – however, the media have largely taken a stance of watching the fallout from the sidelines, breathing a sigh of relief that our Aussie burgers are 100% Aussie beef. We may be in a better position on our fresh meat supply chains then other countries in Europe, but that’s little consolation when we have a retail duopoly that appears to be following the European model on ever cheaper prices, at ever growing costs to farmers. How can we be sure that the continued demand for cheap prices, coupled with the continued failure to advocate for lower meat consumption, won’t lead to the same dodgy dealings in Australia too? We desperately need to be looking at the issues in Europe and asking ourselves what lessons can we learn so that we avoid similar failings at home.
It’s not just the newspapers that need to start joining these dots and asking the big questions about the future sustainability and health of our food system. We need policy makers to be leading the way. The NHMRC guidelines state we should be increasing our fish consumption by 40%. Although they acknowledge that there are environmental issues with this, they do not provide advice on how we should be meeting our fish needs sustainably. These issues are by no means small fry. WWF estimate that “the global fishing fleet is 2.5 times larger than what the oceans can sustainably support”. Our marine ecosystems simply cannot sustain us consuming more.
We desperately need this holistic discussion on what a sustainable diet looks like in Australia. The Government’s highly anticipated National Food Plan due to be published this winter, was supposed to kick this off, but it’s clear that we are far from a good outcome if the government’s own agency has failed to include environmental considerations within the nutritional guidelines. Thankfully we are not alone in calling for more joined up thinking. The Public Health Association of Australia released a statement last week on this issue.
The PHAA CEO Michael Moore said, “Food, health and the environment form an integrated system. It is appropriate and imperative to let people know how to eat to protect the future environment as well as their health. Our food choices impact on the environment which needs to be a key consideration of dietary advice in Australia, as it is in other countries. If we destroy the environment that sustains our food supply we will not be in a position to produce good nutritious food and such advice will become redundant.”
Thoughts from Thea and Bethan