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Unpicking the Oz’s recent splash on NHMRC’s “green diet push”

Last week The Australian newspaper splashed with this story about a “green diet push” which accused the National Health and Medical Research Council, which is currently developing new national dietary guidelines,  “of subverting food science to fit a green agenda”.

The paper followed up with a particularly ill-informed editorial under the headline “Social engineers want to force-feed us dogma for dinner”.

But, as suggested by the article below by nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton, it seems like yet another example from this newspaper of not letting the facts stand in the way of an ideological agenda.

She writes:

Last week, an article in The Australian criticised the National Health and Medical Research Council for including environmental sustainability in their considerations when formulating Australia’s dietary guidelines. The chief complainants were the Heart Foundation, CSIRO and the Australian Food and Grocery Council. AFGC thought the NHMRC should stick to ‘science’ rather than stray to areas where they had no expertise, such as environmental sustainability.

The moans were misplaced. The draft document that caused the angst was titled ‘A new food guidance system for Australia – Foundation and total Diets’. It was not the dietary guidelines and made no recommendations.

Instead it was the result of a computer modelling program that had arranged foods into possible combinations that would meet recommended dietary intakes (RDIs) for the smallest and least active people, based on age, gender and life stage.

No modelling system is perfect and none works without some human input. Left to its own devices, this particular system would simply choose foods that provide lots of nutrients for low levels of energy and come up with something as impractical as 26 serves of green vegetables, some wholegrains and lots of oily fish.

Like any modelling system, someone has to impose some constraints. The NHMRC set levels for various foods that would fit health and nutritional criteria, be culturally acceptable, available in Australia, affordable and in keeping with the large body of scientific evidence relating to sustainable food choices.

Environmental sustainability is a highly valued and totally valid science. Had AFGC checked the list of experts involved with the NHMRC, they would have noted that one of the world’s top experts on matters of food security and sustainability was involved.

So which specific matters were of concern? The CSIRO and the Heart Foundation were apparently unhappy that the modelled diets had too little red meat and fish. In fact, the modelling exercise limited red meat to 455g/week – similar to the top end of the currently accepted Australian Guide to Healthy Eating’s recommendation of 65-100g, 3-4 times a week. For fish and seafood, the modelling exercise used a weekly intake ranging from 100g to 280g – well above current average consumption of about 70g/week.

CSIRO’s first Total Wellbeing Diet book (linked with promotions from Meat and Livestock Australia) recommended very large quantities of fresh and processed red meat as well as large quantities of fish.

Many people doubted the wisdom of so much meat, and recent scientific evidence against a high intake of red meat has added to that provided by the World Cancer Research Fund at the time. Meanwhile, environmental scientists repeatedly note the high carbon costs of producing large quantities of beef in particular.

Scientists also note that Australia is conscious of sustainability issues associated with seafood, and the industry is working to build a sustainable aquaculture industry. Overall, however, much of the world’s fish stocks are in decline. With imported seafood making up over half of our current consumption, a global scientific perspective means we need to take a balanced approach to meeting nutritional needs as well as considering long-term sustainability.

Had the NHMRC ignored environmental sustainability, they would have been justly criticised by public health and other scientific experts.

After all, this is not really new. Almost 25 years ago, Professor Joan Gussow, noted American nutritionist and environmental scientist, wrote ”Learning to view foods as more than just sources of nutrients may guide consumers toward sustainable food choices. A shift to sustainable diets would be an important first step in widespread adoption of a sustainable agriculture policy that promotes the conservation of natural resources and regional self-reliance in food production and consumption.”

Sweden’s new environmentally friendly food recommendations that consider health and climate change have been welcomed by nutritionists and environmental scientists. On the evidence of both nutritional and environmental scientists, Sweden’s guidelines lean towards a diet based on more plant-based fresh foods, appropriate for local conditions and consumption patterns. Meat and sustainable seafood choices are included too – in only moderate quantities. Sweden too has experienced opposition –principally from the meat industry, salmon farmers and Malaysian palm oil growers. Predictable perhaps?

Australia’s new dietary guidelines are still a way off. They will be informed by many considerations, but contrary to the implications in The Australian, the current modelling document is not a guideline and makes no recommendations. It is but one small step.”

• Rosemary Stanton is a member of the NHMRC committee drafting new dietary guidelines. She has written this article in a personal capacity; not on behalf of the NHMRC.

Croakey’s comment: Meat and Livestock Australia, amongst others, must have been very happy with the Oz’s splash. It would be nice to know if they had any hand in it, and also all of the industry associations of those making comment…

Update: Just for the record, my comments weren’t intended to have a go at Adam Cresswell, who wrote the original article and who I have known for many years, so much as the way The Australian presented the story and its accompanying editorial. I was originally going to make this distinction in my preamble above, but cut it out for brevity. In retrospect this was a mistake.

I must admit that as a reader of The Australian, I am very tired of how it slants so much of its coverage towards its agendas around climate change, sustainability issues and its consistent attacks on legitimate public health measures as “nanny statism”. None of this can be blamed on Cresswell, who I actually regard as one of the more reliable and useful news sources at The Australian.

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  1. ...] Skip to content « Unpicking the Oz’s recent splash on NHMRC’s “green diet push” [...

  2. ...] of consumers food choices and environmental impacts. A good argument supporting this vision is given by Dr Rosemary Stanton in her Crikey article published yesterday. And I certainly look forward to acknowledging that [...

  3. ...] • The Australian’s campaign against environmentally friendly eating [...

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