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Our Government Must Do More To Encourage Healthy, Sustainable Eating

Policy measures can help shape needed dietary modifications.

An annual study of food prices predicts that the price of vegetables will rise by about four to six per cent next year, while the price of meat and seafood will go down, thanks largely to growing interest in plant-based eating.

Neither of these predictions is good news for Canadians, who are already eating more meat and fewer vegetables than our current food guide recommends — and our food guide, due for a revision, already allows more animal foods than is supported by health evidence.

Rising vegetable prices are especially concerning for vulnerable groups — such as northern communities and children — who may already face other barriers to consuming sufficient vegetables, fruits, and legumes. But even for Canadians who won't struggle to consume healthy diets, the last thing we need is for meat and seafood to become relatively more affordable than plant-based foods.

Watch: Why eating less meat would be good for the environment. Blog continues below.

According to research conducted at McGill University, if Canadians were to consume more plant-based foods, an increase in GDP and employment would be expected. The researchers recommended the government adopt fiscal policies to provide incentives for Canadians to consume more plant-based foods and fewer animal foods.

It's not just our health that's on the line. Last month, research published in the journal Nature found that a global shift towards a plant-based diet could reduce projected greenhouse gas emissions by more than half by 2050. Such a dramatic potential reduction renders plant-based eating an indispensable behavioural adaptation in averting climate breakdown. These researchers, too, recommended policy measures to help shape needed dietary modifications.

So what policy tools could be used?

For one, fruits, vegetables and legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, soy foods) could be subsidized, in the form of point-of-sale deductions for all Canadians or vouchers for low-income individuals. This policy intervention could pay for itself by reducing health care expenses associated with chronic disease: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity can all be prevented and managed by diets rich in plant-based foods. Such a subsidy could also increase employment and GDP, and reduce reliance on costly social programs.

Subsidies and educational measures could be enhanced with taxes on either animal foods or saturated fat.

But this assumes Canadians are consuming the plant-based foods they're purchasing. Canadians already waste about 170 kilograms of food per capita per year, resulting in unnecessary, harmful greenhouse gas emissions and fertilizer usage, and wasted energy, water, and land. We don't need to purchase more plant-based foods only to have them rot in the fridge.

So, it makes sense to couple subsidies for fruits, vegetables and legumes with sustained educational measures that inform Canadians about both the benefits of consuming diets rich in plant-based foods and strategies for incorporating these foods into our diets. In other words, we need information both about what to do and how to do it. Studies have shown that such campaigns can be effective.

Health Canada is already moving to require front-of-package nutrition labelling on foods high in saturated fat, among others. This is an important step in the right direction. We need more educational, labelling, and media campaigns along these lines.

Subsidies and educational measures could be enhanced with taxes on either animal foods or saturated fat, as Denmark has enacted. Such a tax would not only discourage harmful behaviour, but it would also raise revenues to offset the costs of subsidizing and promoting plant-based foods.

The United Nations, the World Health Organization, and others have all recommended governments use policy tools — including taxes, subsidies, and education — to nudge citizens towards more plant-based eating for both health and environmental reasons. In our modern, crowded world of abundance, the way we eat goes beyond our personal preferences, having implications for the planet and those with whom we share it with.

It cannot be solely left to individuals to behave in a socially responsible manner. Governments must lead in creating an equitable, resilient society that ensures that the healthful and sustainable choices are the easy choices.

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