Climate

The Netherlands’ New Dietary Guidelines Take Meat Off The Menu

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The Dutch government has a new message for its residents: when it comes to meat, less is more.

This week, the Netherlands Nutrition Centre — a government-funded program that creates dietary guidelines — issued a recommendation that people eat no more than two servings of meat per week. According to National Geographic, it’s the first time that the Nutrition Centre has placed a hard limit on the amount of meat a person should consume.

The Centre released its recommendations after nearly five years of studying the health and ecological impacts of an average Dutch diet. The new guidelines recommend that a person should consume no more than 500 grams (or a little over a pound) of meat per week. Of that, no more than 300 grams should be red meat, or what the Centre calls “high-carbon.” Instead, the guidelines recommend that people incorporate other sources of protein into their diets, from things like nuts or pulses.

The Netherlands isn’t the first country to look at dietary guidelines from both a health and ecological standpoint. Last week, the U.K.’s government-backed nutritional body released updated dietary guidelines recommending that residents replace several servings of animal protein with plant-based protein from things like pulses, a category of food that includes lentils, peas, and beans. The guidelines also recommend a 7 percent reduction in dairy consumption.

Both the Netherlands and the U.K. are years behind Sweden, however, in including sustainability concerns in their dietary guidelines. In 2009, Sweden became the first country to recommend that residents take environmental concerns into account when making food choices.

Earlier this year, the United States briefly considered including sustainability in the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services’ updated dietary guidelines. During the early stages of creating the updated guidelines, the the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — a group of scientists responsible for coming up with recommendations for the guidelines — suggested that sustainability might be an important addition.

"A diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet,” the advisory committee wrote in its report. “Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns.”

The suggestion was met with both cries of support from environmentalists and fierce backlash from the meat industry, with nearly 29,000 comments submitted during the public comment period. According to an analysis of the comments conducted by the Center for Biological Diversity, the comments showed "overwhelming support" for including sustainability.

But when the guidelines were finally released in October of last year, sustainability did not make the cut. Environmental and food sustainability experts were quick to point a finger at the political power of the food lobby, which they argue had an outsized influence on the crafting of the guidelines.

"The way that this has played out shows that there are clear politics behind it," Ricardo Salvador, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Food and Environment Program, told ThinkProgress in October. “Everybody who has been following this process and knows who’s speaking with whom knows food industry executives have been in the office and pressuring the secretary on this issue."

Still, both environmental groups and the scientific community seem to be ramping up the pressure on meat-heavy diets. In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at Oxford University found that the world could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent, and save 5.1 million lives annually, if meat consumption globally were reduced by half by the end of the century.