by Helena Robling
As we speak, the Swedish national food agency is in the process of developing a set of environmentally sustainable dietary guidelines. The purpose is to give the population information on what to eat and maybe more importantly, what not to eat, to keep healthy and at the same time minimize the individual impact on the environment through food.
According to their web page (sadly only available in Swedish but quite comprehensive in google translate), a diet change of the population could cut Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions by half.
Given the opportunity to consider the initial draft of the guidelines, comments from interest groups such as the Board of Agriculture and consumer associations have not been overwhelmingly positive. For example, the guidelines’ pronounced support for what is described as locally grown food is criticized for being vaguely defined and lacking a scientific base. The Board of Agriculture argue that “there is no general proof that plants grown in Sweden have less impact on the environment than plants grown in for example Spain” (free translation).
In this case it is important to keep in mind that the most skeptical comments come from the institution in charge of the implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU in Sweden. Hence, the critique must be seen in the light of the general fear that the guidelines, if too firmly promoting locally grown foods, will be considered trade distorting. This was the reason why the last attempt of releasing the guidelines in 2011 was stopped by the government after complaints from other EU members.
It is a complex question to try to get a clear recommendation on what to eat to have the least impact on the environment, any recommendations that could be made are obviously place, time and context bound and universal applicability of such guidelines are never feasible. There is also always a risk that terms such as “locally produced” can be very misleading if they lack clear definitions.
Vague or not, the guidelines are supposed to be a tool for consumers to make informed decisions regarding the environmental impact of the food they purchase. They can, and should, inform the consumer about the factors that influence the environmental impact of food without deciding exactly what brand, nationality or type of food to buy at all times. But, to make “environmentally friendly” food recommendations without mentioning aspects such as transportation, season and pesticide use will in the end create a rather useless set of guidelines. And I’m afraid that the same would hold if they were perfectly non-trade distortable. It seems like environment and trade once again are having problems getting along..
The debate can also be seen as a question of political philosophy regarding the role of government in promoting certain behavior. Is it even up to the government to have a say in what we eat at all or is such interference always a limitation of the individual’s freedom of choice? Recommendations and guidelines are commonly seen as a middle road of compromise between individual freedom and governmental force.
In this particular case, the framework for individual action is created by the state through the guidelines. Then, what exactly is considered locally grown or regionally produced can instead be up to the individual consumer to decide for herself. But to even consider buying locally grown food, there is a need for an initial interest and intentional motivation from the consumer’s side to limit the environmental impact of the food she buys. This motivation can partly be induced by the guidelines and that is exactly what should be their purpose.
Maybe you would prefer more decadent dietary guidelines? A quite un-orthodox contribution to the diet debate comes from one of the world’s wealthiest people and most famous investors. At age 84, business magnate Warren Buffet claims to keep a diet of a 6-year old, very high on salts and sugar, but mostly on Coca-Cola.
So that’s also a diet choice…