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Appendix to the Australian Dietary Guidelines: Dietary Guidelines through an environmental lens submission

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General Comments

What we choose to eat as a society is determined by examining the impacts of different dietary choices. An informed balance of dietary priorities is only possible if all the impacts are readily available to a society. If the only impact that people have access to is the shelf price of the components of their diet, they would choose to prioritise what they consumed only on the basis of cost. It is obvious that this poverty of information would lead to poor nutritional choice and Australia’s collective health would be even worse than it is currently. The more impacts of diet that are available to the public, the better informed their choices will be.

For this reason people are seeking, and have a right to, dietary guidance for many non-health reasons. The Australian Dietary Guidelines, the NHMRC and members of the Dieticians Association are traditional sources for this type of information. Whilst health has historically been the primary reason for seeking such advice, there are many other concerns driving the demand for dietary advice including, but not confined to, ethics, environmental impact, and social impact. These “secondary” concerns have become increasingly important to society to the extent that, for many people, they are now equally or even more important than the health aspects of diet. To fail to recognise these dietary decision criteria is to fall short in providing all the information the population require to make informed dietary choices.

In the short term, inability to access information on environmental, ethical and social impacts of food consumption makes it harder for people to consume in a manner compatible with their values – an issue of ethical choice. Added to this in the longer term are the cumulative adverse impacts to environment and societies of poor dietary choices, the damage from which can be very long term or even permanent.

For the same reasons that consumers across the world have welcomed labeling that indicates the status of a product in terms of its carbon footprint, social responsibility, environmental sustainability, GMO profile, and ethical treatment of animals, there is demand for dietary advice in these areas too. For example, if I have a health condition which would benefit from a change of diet, the dietary options available to me would include some that had higher impacts to the environment, society and animals than would others. If such impact information were included in the Australian Dietary Guidelines I could take it into consideration when building my new dietary regime.

The media release from the National Farmers’ Federation, dated 13th of December 2011, smacks strongly of self interest. The agriculture industry has a vested interest in maximizing production and selling as much as possible of everything they produce. Therefore anything that looks as if it has the potential to attenuate demand for their products must be opposed. Many large scale intensive agricultural practices have adverse impacts to environment and animal rights, and the industry wants to downplay or hide these impacts. The agriculture industry should not be allowed to influence the content of the Australian Dietary Guidelines for their own benefit. The guidelines should be a factual and unbiased assessment of dietary data, not a medium censored for the benefit of agri-business.

An increasingly free and informed society is an indisputably good thing. To the extent that such a society has access to all the facts, it is able to conduct itself in a manner consistent with its values. As ethics, environmental impact, and social impact are all considerations of any civil and advanced society, they ought to be represented in the tools and materials that help us decide what to eat.

The decision to exclude such information from the Australian Dietary Guidelines is therefore contrary to society’s best interests, and I would urge that the information relegated to the draft appendix be reinstated to its rightful place in the main body of the document, and augmented with information regarding the treatment of animals in industrialised agriculture and nutritionally equivalent alternatives, in order to help us make the very best dietary decisions possible.

Page reviewed: 4 February, 2013