Sunday, April 14, 2024

The red meat industry challenges the focus on sustainability in dietary guidelines review


As Australia embarks on a crucial update to its dietary guidelines, a contentious debate has emerged, pitting the red meat industry against the prioritization of sustainability in the nation’s dietary advice. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), tasked with reviewing what Australians should consume to meet their nutritional needs, has sparked concern among beef producers by emphasizing sustainable diets as a key focus of its research. This move towards incorporating environmental impact, accessibility, and affordability into the guidelines has led to a clash with an industry striving to balance sustainability efforts with its traditional role in the Australian diet. 

In the intricate process of updating the Australian Dietary Guidelines, which has been underway since 2020 and aims for completion by 2026, the NHMRC has outlined its priority areas for research. Among these, sustainable diets have been singled out as a critical area, described as diets that are accessible, affordable, equitable, and have minimal environmental impacts. This inclusion reflects a growing global consensus on the need for dietary advice that not only addresses individual health but also considers the broader impact of food choices on the planet. 

However, representatives from the red meat sector, such as Australian Beef Sustainability Framework chairman Mark Davie, are seeking clarity on how sustainability will be quantitatively assessed and fear that the industry’s efforts to reduce emissions and improve environmental stewardship may not be adequately recognized. The industry has made significant strides toward sustainability, including Meat and Livestock Australia’s ambitious target to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, backed by over $200 million in investments aimed at reducing methane emissions and enhancing sustainable practices. 

The red meat industry’s concerns extend beyond the recognition of its sustainability initiatives. There is apprehension about the broader implications of these updated guidelines on meat consumption patterns, the livelihoods of farmers, and regional communities dependent on agriculture. The debate touches on the complex interplay between nutrition, environmental sustainability, and the economic realities of food production, highlighting the challenges of crafting dietary guidelines that cater to diverse stakeholder interests. 

As the NHMRC opens expressions of interest for joining the sustainability working group to advise on the guidelines, it emphasizes the inclusion of a wide range of perspectives, including those from farmers and farming organizations. The council assures that the development of the guidelines will consider various factors, including the evidence of sustainability efforts by the agriculture sector and the importance of food production to regional communities. 

This unfolding dialogue underscores the evolving nature of dietary guidelines, which are increasingly being called upon to address not just nutritional adequacy but also the sustainability of food systems. As Australia moves forward with its review, the inclusion of sustainability in dietary guidelines represents a pivotal moment in reconciling public health objectives with environmental stewardship and food security. The debate reveals the complexities of integrating sustainability into national dietary advice, a challenge that is not unique to Australia but resonates globally as nations strive to develop food policies that support both human and planetary health. 

Dr. Edward Mungai
Dr. Edward Mungai
The writer, Dr. Edward Mungai, is a global sustainability expert. He is the Lead Consultant and Partner at Impact Africa Consulting Ltd (IACL), a leading sustainability and strategy advisory in Africa. He is also the Chief Editor at Africa Sustainability Matters. He can be contacted via

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