Hard to swallow: Breaking the EU taboo on healthy, sustainable diets

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Phil Hogan's plan to increase meat consumption does not make sense whatever way you look at it. [European Commission]

The European Commission has consistently failed to deliver commitments on promoting healthy and sustainable diets. New plans to increase rather than reduce meat consumption are proving difficult to stomach, argues Dr Joanna Swabe.

Dr Joanna Swabe is the executive-director for Humane Society International/Europe.

Judging by the European Commission’s Work Programme 2017, it is evident that encouraging healthy and sustainable diets is still not a priority. This is disappointing, given that the Commission committed to developing a sustainable food strategy in 2011.

A Communication was drafted and even reportedly translated, but this initiative was killed off by the mandarins despite resounding public and political support. This adds a note of irony to its self-affirmation in the Work Programme of “a Europe that takes responsibility for delivery on promises made”.

This failure to act is particularly perverse given that the EU is gripped by an obesity epidemic. Highly visible yet neglected, the World Health Organisation calls it “one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century”. The latest figures show more than half of EU citizens and one third of 11-year-olds are overweight.

A study recently published in BMC Nutrition found that high meat intake, independent of calories consumed, is the most significant predictor of increased obesity rates. The data confirmed what numerous researchers have already found: that the more plant proteins we eat, such as is found in nuts, grains and legumes, the less likely we are to be obese.

Non-communicable diseases, often associated with obesity, account for approximately 80% of deaths in the EU, yet studies show that many can be prevented, and in some cases reversed, with plant-based diets.

Moreover, plant-based diets also have sizeable environmental benefits. Intergovernmental agencies, and numerous studies, implicate animal agriculture as a major driver of climate change and a disproportionate user of land, water and feedstuffs. It is also one of the largest contributors to biodiversity loss.

Farm animal production accounts for 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gases (GHGs) globally. It is easy to see that production is directly related to supply and demand. The Paris Agreement set the bar for avoiding dangerous climate change, yet, despite claiming in the Work Programme its global leading role on climate change, the EU has failed to address demand side agricultural emissions in its climate action plan.

Without reducing the number of animals raised for food—more than 8.3 billion per year in the EU alone—the sector will emit more than two-thirds of the GHG emissions considered sustainable by 2050.

It is reasonable, based on the evidence, that this be identified as an EU priority.  Yet, staggeringly, EU Agricultural Commissioner Phil Hogan recently announced that he would be releasing an additional €15 million per year to promote meat across the EU.

This goes against the grain of the scientific community and is at odds with meeting international climate commitments.

Hogan stated that his plan to promote the meat sector is part of the Commission’s sustainability agenda. However, this is about economics, not sustainability. And even here, it does not add up.

A recent Oxford University study found that in Western countries the monetised value of health improvements could even exceed the environmental benefits. The study estimates that, by 2050, the potential economic benefit of shifting from animal to plant-based proteins could reach $31 trillion or 13% of global GDP.

The finance world has taken an unlikely lead on shifting diets away from animal protein. A $1.25 trillion coalition of 40 investors has written to 16 multinational food companies, including Tesco, Unilever, Nestle and Delhaize, to highlight the risks posed by industrial animal production, and encouraging strategies to diversify into plant-based proteins.

This makes Hogan’s plans even more difficult to swallow.

As we see movement in other sectors, it is essential that governments show leadership. This is why Humane Society International is calling on the Commission to take responsibility for the promise made in 2011 and produce a strategy for a sustainable European Food system that protects the health of EU citizens and limits the damage to our environment.

Such a strategy must address both ends of the food chain and include pathways to reducing consumption of animal source proteins, such as sustainable dietary guidelines and sample public awareness raising campaigns. Current structure for agricultural subsidies must also be reconsidered, with a focus on alternative systems that incentivise consumption of plant over animal protein.

We strongly advocate that an EU target for a 30% reduction in consumption of animal-based foods by 2030 be included within a wider strategy. Only with a defined target will it be possible to monitor the progress and achieve clear and measurable outcomes, while putting the EU on the right course to meet its international commitments set out in the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Based on research conducted in 2014 by Henk Westhoek, a Senior Researcher at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, a 30% reduction could mean 11-25% lower agricultural GHG emissions, 2.5 billion fewer land animals raised for food, 24% reduction in saturated fats and 141 million fewer tonnes of feed, not to mention the health, economic and animal welfare benefits that would come with this.

To retain its position as a global leader in progressive green initiatives, the EU should be leading the transition towards more sustainable consumption patterns, and setting the international community an example of best practice to aspire to.

A sustainable food systems strategy is both urgent and necessary and HSI is working with members of the European Parliament to adopt a formal position requesting the Commission deliver a strategy, and ensure its inclusion as a priority in the Work Programme for 2018.



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