EESC proposes new Sustainable Dietary Guidelines to improve the health of both ecosystems and people

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Peter Schmidt

Food plays a central role in people's lives and diets must be tackled from a nutritional and health point of view as well as from an environmental, economic, social and cultural angle. To facilitate such a comprehensive approach, the EESC calls for the introduction of new Sustainable Dietary Guidelines in its own-initiative opinion on "Promoting healthy and sustainable diets in the EU".

What we eat affects our health and our planet. We need policies to promote more sustainable and healthy diets, and Sustainable Dietary Guidelines must be developed. This is essential to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change says Peter Schmidt, rapporteur of the own-initiative opinion.

Promoting healthy and sustainable diets is important in the context of a comprehensive EU food policy. Sustainable Dietary Guidelines and clear labelling schemes, including origin labelling, that take into account cultural and geographical differences between and within Member States would help give a clearer direction to farms, processors, retailers and foodservices. The agri-food system would also benefit from a new, more transparent framework to produce, process, distribute and sell healthier and more sustainable food at fairer prices, says Maurizio Reale, President of the EESC Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment (NAT).

The UN has declared this to be the Decade of Action for Nutrition, acknowledging the need to re-shape food systems to achieve healthier diets and improved nutrition. The time is ripe to accelerate a paradigm shift to more sustainable and healthy diets, and the evidence is strong and increasing. Poor diets are Europe's main causes of premature death and preventable disease, and people on low incomes due to increasing inequalities tend to eat worse diets. Food production and consumption have a major impact on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, water and soil pollution etc. However, food systems can be the source of restoration and enhanced resilience, if food is grown, processed and consumed differently.

Science has begun to redefine what is needed in the 21st century: healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Policy now needs to address this challenge. The implementation of the SDGs offers an opportunity to change food consumption and production in a more sustainable and healthy way, says Schmidt.

An Expert Group to develop Sustainable Dietary Guidelines  

A sustainable approach requires a long-term perspective and the development of a comprehensive EU food policy, as already called for by the EESC in a previous opinion.  Almost all countries have official nutrition or food-based dietary guidelines. These are familiar as advice to eat less salt, eat a number of "portions" of fruit and vegetables, consume certain amount of fish, etc. Given the strong evidence about the impacts of diets on health, environment, the economy and society as a whole, it seems now logical to include wider criteria in dietary advice.

In order to draw up evidence-based guidelines, the EESC proposes the creation of an Expert Group, consisting of relevant professionals and scientists from nutrition, public health, food, environmental and social sciences.

Comprehensive food labelling and sustainable public procurement

The Sustainable Dietary Guidelines should serve as the basis for broader food labelling including environmental and social aspects. This should improve transparency and discourage the use of unnecessarily cheap raw materials such as trans-fats, palm oil and excess sugars that are both unhealthy and unsustainable. We need consumers to appreciate the real value of food, concludes Mr Schmidt.

Sustainable Dietary Guidelines would also provide common, clear criteria for use in public procurement. In the opinion, the EESC calls for explicit and more ambitious food sustainability criteria to be included in Green Public Procurement and for regulatory obstacles to be removed. In particular, competition rules should be adapted to help the local economy instead of hindering sustainability.