U.K. advisory body on sustainability for radical changes in patterns of consumption.

The U.K.’s first official recommendations for a diet that is both healthy and good for the environment are published on Friday, and they are likely to be seen as an assault on the current food system.

To fight climate change and tackle the growing crisis of diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, British consumers must cut down on meat and dairy produce, reduce their intake of processed foods and curb waste.

These are the three priorities identified in a report by the British government’s independent advisory body on sustainability, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), which calls for radical changes in patterns of consumption.

The report — which will dismay many in the livestock and processed food industries — will feed into all government departments and procurement agencies. Well-placed sources say it has created tension between government departments and advisers over its potential impact.

The study acknowledges that cutting processed food and reducing consumption of intensively-produced meat and dairy foods could lead to a shrinking of the U.K. food and drink industry.

The U.K.’s retail supply system would also be affected — the SDC report recommends people reduce energy consumption by shopping more on foot or over the internet and that they replace bottled water with tap water.

While about 18 per cent of the U.K.’s greenhouse gas emissions are related to food and drink consumption and production, the industry is the single biggest manufacturing sector in the U.K., accounting for 7 per cent of GDP and employing 3.7 million people. The recommended shift away from meat and dairy to more seasonal and field-grown (as opposed to glasshouse-grown) vegetables and fruit would also hit the U.K.’s already hardpressed livestock farmers.

The way that farmland is used would have to change. Grass-fed rather than grain-fed animals are a more sustainable use of resources, the report says. There should be “an increase in consumption of foods produced with respect for wildlife and the environment, for instance organic,” it adds. The SDC also highlights soya and palm oil as “hotspots” of the sort of consumption that damages the environment while providing calories of low nutritional value. It estimates that 70,000 premature deaths in the U.K. could be avoided if diets matched healthy guidelines.

Figures released on Thursday by the U.K.’s health service’s information survey showing that almost one in four boys and more than one in five girls in England are overweight or obese at the start of their school lives added urgency to the debate. SDC commissioner Professor Tim Lang said the recommendations represented the first coherent advice on a sustainable diet.

“So far we’ve had fragmented and contradictory thinking on what dietary intakes should be. Advice to consumers ought to change and stop compartmentalising issues. Cutting down on meat and dairy, eating only sustainably sourced fish, fruit and vegetables, would all help reduce the impact of our food system as well as improving health,” he said.

The government’s approach to addressing the priorities in the report has been “mixed,” according to the SDC. Food waste and consumers’ shopping have received high-profile attention but cutting meat and dairy and junk food has not, it argues. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

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