Irish diets need to change radically to low-fat and low-emission options, new paper warns

Red meat. Photo: Andy Butterton/PA Wire

Caroline O'Doherty

Irish diets need to change radically to low-fat, low-emission options, an alliance of heavy-hitter medical and scientific organisations has warned.

Red meat and ultra-processed foods now dominate Ireland’s meals at the expense of fruit, vegetables, plant proteins, wholegrains and seafood, the Climate and Health Alliance says.

It describes this as a “slow motion disaster”, causing premature death and disability from diet-related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes and obesity.

Producing the country’s preferred foods also causes pollution to water sources, destruction of nature and huge greenhouse gas emissions.

Alliance members include the Irish Cancer Society, Irish Heart Foundation, Irish College of General Practitioners, Irish Medical Organisation, Irish Doctors for the Environment, Safefood, Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, Royal College of Physicians Ireland, Association for Health Promotion and the UCC School of Public Health.

They are calling for a national policy on food systems and want a special Cabinet subcommittee to oversee “a food revolution”.

Their 138-page position paper, Fixing Food Together, paints a stark picture of the health and environmental consequences of how our food is produced and consumed.

“This is like a slow-motion disaster unfolding before our eyes,” said spokesman Tim Collins, chief executive of the Irish Heart Foundation, one of the alliance's founding members.

“The global food system we have created can feed the world but has also made us heavier and sicker, it destroys wildlife, pollutes our rivers and air and produces a third of our greenhouse gas emissions.

“In Ireland, we now have a disturbing overconsumption-undernutrition paradox.”

The alliance’s report is being launched today at a conference in Dublin attended by Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Pippa Hackett, and experts from the UK and Ireland.

The report says farmers must be part of the discussion around food system failures and must be involved in the solutions.

It highlights areas where Ireland needs to change, with ending the reliance on junk food a top priority.

It wants to see a transition away from over-consumption of processed foods to a more plant-based diet including beans, peas and lentils, with far stronger national guidelines leading the way.

A reduction in food waste and improving agricultural practices and land use are also key concerns.

“We need to more than halve the carbon footprint of what we eat, and to achieve such a huge reduction we need to focus on policy level changes and structural systems changes,” said dietician and lead author, Orna O’Brien.

The report coincides with new research commissioned by the Irish Heart Foundation from polling company, Ipsos, which shows just one in five of us understand how important reducing our intake of red and processed meat or ultra-processed foods would be in lowering greenhouse gases.

Nearly 40pc say public information campaigns should be developed to help people make better choices.

Almost a third, 32pc, would favour higher taxes being levied on unhealthy and unsustainable foods.

Nearly two-thirds, 64pc, believe the Government is not financing or supporting farmers enough to encourage adoption of low emissions practices.