Secret scheme to change what you eat

24 Feb, 2011 10:31 AM
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WOULD you change your diet - even if it damaged your health - to save the environment? Australians have never been asked the question, although it's a fair bet most would answer with a resounding "no".

What if the environmental benefit was uncertain and the data said to support it held secret?

A hand-picked group of Australians on a secretive sub-committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council have answered yes for you and are determined you will not get to make up your own mind.

The council, a government-appointed body responsible for raising the standard of individual and public health in Australia, publishes dietary guidelines on how much of certain foods people should eat.

The current guidelines, published in 2003, are under review and the council has issued a draft consultation document. It explains how the NHMRC uses the nutrient and energy characteristics of different foods to make recommendations about appropriate diets and also reveals that the NHMRC has included the ''environmental sustainability'' of certain food groups in its criteria.

On the basis of information collected in a literature review, the recommended intake of some foods, notably red meat and fish, were reduced. In the case of red meat, "production has a large environmental impact through combined methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions" and in the case of fish, because of "environmental concerns about the sustainability of stocks of some fish species".

The draft says the resulting diets may be deficient in iron and zinc for certain population groups. It notes red meat is a good source of both - however, recommended meat intakes presumably could not be increased because of the limits imposed on sustainability grounds.

Some might argue that reducing the intake of red meats is probably good from a health perspective, that those who need to can supplement their mineral intake, and if this benefits the environment then perhaps the NHMRC approach is OK.

But even those people would think it only reasonable that the council make available the information it used to reach this decision.

This is where the whole issue takes on Orwellian overtones because the council has steadfastly refused to release the report on environmental sustainability that is the basis of its decisions. It seems to believe Australians should blindly accept that the information supporting these recommendations is balanced, robust and objective, and has been considered in a fair and reasonable manner.

And where might it end? What about fish from sustainably managed fisheries, or fish produced in a well-managed, environmentally friendly fish farm? Feedlot beef results in fewer greenhouse emissions than grass-fed beef, so should there be a separate, higher recommended intake of feedlot beef? And what about vegetables? The government has said that irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin (where most Australian vegetables are grown) is unsustainable. Perhaps the recommended intake of vegetables should also be limited? And what happens if the data in the secret report is wrong, or changes due to altered production systems? Will the council immediately revise its recommendations?

Perhaps it is on to something. Perhaps a lot more of the world's problems can be solved this way. Why would the council stop at environmental sustainability if it is going to consider non-nutritional factors in making recommendations about Australian diets? Why not include gender equity, cultural diversity and willingness to employ refugees? Why not also throw in criteria for animal welfare, wildlife conservation and corporate social responsibility? The opportunities to change the world for the better are endless.

Of course this would greatly complicate the preparation of dietary recommendations and require many extra secret reports for the NHMRC.

But think how comforted Australians would be in knowing their starvation diet of hand-harvested native grass seeds, packaged and processed using only renewable energy and recycled paper, and transported to them in the pouches of lovingly cared-for kangaroos, is actually solving all the world's problems as they eat.

* Mick Keogh is the executive director of the Australian Farm Institute, an independent organisation that studies policies affecting agriculture.

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