“The Netherlands has sufficient social ambitions, entrepreneurial spirit and innovation in order to achieve a healthier and more sustainable diet, with adequate food safety,” according to an RIVM report published yesterday.
In order to achieve this, the researchers say government must work together with industry, the agricultural sector, citizens and civil society organisations.
"Betting on innovation" offers the best prospects, it says. Precision agriculture, aquaculture and biotechnology are all examples of how food production can increase without engendering negative effects on the environment, while alternative protein sources, such as seaweed and insects, should be developed. Industry could also respond to demands for 'customised food' and personalised nutrition.
Opportunities for a healthier and more sustainable diet lie first and foremost in eating less food, followed by a higher vegetable intake, eating fewer animal-based products and fewer sugary and alcoholic drinks, says RIVM, part of the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Sport.
Around half of the Dutch population is considered to be overweight - more for those in lower socio-economic groups - while nearly 30% of people's food is of animal origin and only one in 10 individuals eat enough fruit and vegetables. Each Dutch person wastes 47 kg of food a year.
While consumers can rest assured that Dutch food is “mostly safe” with around one in 24 food-borne infections each year (that are generally not serious) eating less meat will also boost food safety, it says. “The consumption of less meat, moreover, is associated with fewer food infections.”
Dealing with dilemmas
The path to sustainable, safe and healthy food won’t be entirely smooth, however, as opting for one doesn't not necessarily include the other. For instance, taking a nose to tail approach in meat production is more sustainable but this usually means favouring fatty cuts in processed products which as sausages which are less healthy.
“Another dilemma is the behaviour of individuals and businesses. They find health and sustainability are important, but consumers still look above all at price and convenience when shopping, and companies want to serve these consumers and make a profit.”
Meanwhile swapping animal-derived protein sources for plant-based ones also raises questions about nutrient gaps. For instance, if meat, fish and eggs are completely replaced with environmentally sustainable nuts and legumes, statistical modelling suggests there would be 5% fewer cases of colon cancer and 10% fewer cases of diabetes. However, the average intake of vitamin B12 also falls by 30% and although iron intake may increase by early 20%, iron from vegetable sources is less easily absorbed by the body.
Replacing meat with nuts on a weight basis alone increases energy intake and could increase the prevalence of overweight. “This example illustrates the positive and negative health effects of environmentally sustainable diets.”
A transition to a more plant-based diet would also have serious effects on Dutch agribusiness,of which animal husbandry for meat production currently forms a significant part. The Netherlands has the highest livestock density than any other country in the world, according to FAO figures, with 207 heads per hectare.
Actions and words
The report has been welcomed by public health and consumer rights campaigners but they have expressed concern about the gap between reports such as these and the day-to-day policy of the government.
Campaigner at industry watchdog association Foodwatch Sjoerd van de Wouw told us: "Our government tells us they support [this advice], but nevertheless fails to enact meaningful policies. In theory it sounds good. [...] In practice, however, the interests of the agri- and foodindustry are placed before consumer health in the development of most of our government policies."
Last year the Netherlands' Nutrition Centre [but Voedings Centrum] updated its dietary recommendations, advising up to 500 g of meat per week, with a maximum of 300 g of red meat.
The full RIVM study can be downloaded here (in Dutch) What's on your plate? Safe, healthy and sustainable food in the Netherlands.