Saturday, 22 September 2012

National Food Plan

The Australian Government is developing a National Food Plan to "ensure a sustainable, globally competitive and resilient food supply that supports access to nutritious and affordable food."

A green paper has been released with some discussion topics. Public submissions are invited and the deadline is the end of September 2012. It is a good opportunity to remind the government that encouraging plant-based diets is the best way to achieve the stated aims.

It seems that animal rights are not up for discussion (when are they ever?) but you may find a way to work it in to your submission.

The green paper, and instructions on writing a submission, can be found here:

If you need some ideas, here is our submission.


The overall theme of the food plan discussion paper is about riding a wave of Asian prosperity and increasing demand for animal products such as meat and dairy. Although wheat is mentioned, much of the expected increase in demand for wheat is due to feed for cattle, pigs and chickens – a highly inefficient use of grain.

In this submission I will discuss how increased production of animal foods leads to poor global outcomes at three levels: in health, environmental resources and food security. These are relevant to Chapters 5, 7 and 9 of the green paper.

Chapter 5: Safe and nutritious food

The green paper talks of responding to changing consumer preferences, particularly responding to the demand for animal products in Asia. Yet, studies convincingly show that negative health outcomes occur when Asian people adopt a more Western diet (Lee & Huang, 2001). In particular, the consumption of animal-based foods has deleterious effects on cardiovascular health (Campbell et al., 1998). Conversely, an Australian-based research group showed that the consumption of legumes (and not dairy, beef, chicken or fish) is the key contributor towards enhanced longevity in people across several cultures (Darmadi-Blackberry et al., 2004).

The negative health impacts of animal products have been well documented, but have been largely downplayed in the formation of official dietary guidelines. Some compelling examples from the research literature follow.

Prostate cancer and dairy
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer for men in Australia – one in nine men will develop the disease in their lifetime[1]. Studies show an increased risk of prostate cancer with dairy consumption. The meta-analysis in Gao et al. (2005) which was conducted on prospective studies found that high intake of both dairy and calcium was related to increased risk of prostate cancer. They found a 33 per cent increase in risk of prostate cancer for the highest versus the lowest categories of dairy intake. A similar association was observed in a subsequent prospective study of 43,435 men over 7.5 years (Kurahashi et al., 2008). 

The link between dairy and prostate cancer is also seen in case-control studies (Qin et al., 2004) and in ecological studies across many countries (Ganmaa et al., 2002). The disease burden of prostate cancer among Singapore Chinese appears to be increasing due to dairy consumption (Butler et al., 2010).

Heme iron from red and white meat increases risk of heart disease
Dietary iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Plants contain only non-heme iron. Heme iron is only obtained from animal products, the main ones being red meat, chicken, turkey and seafood.

Heart disease is still the number one cause of death in this country. Dietary heme iron has been shown to be associated with coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease in several large prospective studies (Ascherio et al., 1994; Klipstein-Grobusch et al., 1999; Lee et al., 2005; van der A et al., 2005; Qi et al., 2007). These studies included several tens of thousands of people. The latter study found that a high dietary heme intake was associated with a 50 per cent increase in risk of heart disease. 

Recently, a large cohort study with over 21,000 participants found an association between red meat consumption and coronary heart disease (Ashaye et al., 2011). This may also be due to the heme iron mechanism. A similar finding was documented in Kelemen et al. (2005), where a study of 29,017 women showed a 44 per cent increase in coronary heart disease risk for the highest versus lowest red meat intake.

•        Shifting consumer preferences in Asia towards Western dietary patterns is likely to lead to poor health outcomes.
•        This causes a significant disease burden which is harmful to people and the economy.
•        Australia should take a lead role in promoting the consumption of healthy plant foods such as legumes.

Chapter 7: A strong natural resource base

It is a common misconception that animals are just grazing and using resources that would otherwise go unused. In fact, Australian livestock agriculture (including dairy cattle, beef cattle, pigs and chickens) is greatly supported by feed crops. Official statistics reveal that livestock can use up to 50 per cent of Australia’s grain crop depending on the drought status of the continent (Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 2007). 

Feeding plant protein to animals in order to produce flesh is highly inefficient. For example, in the case of broiler chickens, vegetable protein is converted to animal protein with an efficiency of just 18 per cent (Reijnders & Soret, 2003). This means that it takes more than 5 grams of vegetable protein to produce 1 gram of chicken flesh protein. The efficiency is even worse for cows and pigs. Given that vegetable sources of protein are perfectly able to sustain human life, this represents a tremendous waste of natural resources – land, water, fertiliser and fossil fuel. Clearly, in order to feed more people with limited resources, the easiest gains are in shifting diets towards plant foods rather than animal foods.

Water used by dairy farms – a closer look 
The dairy industry is a good income earner for foreign-owned companies, but at what cost? A report by CSIRO (Khan et al., 2010) shows that it takes (on average) 800 litres of water to produce just one litre of milk. The industry as a whole is a heavy user of irrigation water and irrigated land, along with feed crops – especially in times of drought. Plant foods can supply protein, energy and calcium at much higher water efficiency. Many green vegetables are denser in calcium than dairy milk. Dairy is thus a very water intensive way to deliver calcium to consumers, and particularly so given that calcium is actually given to cattle in the form of supplements[2]. On average, a person's water footprint due to dairy consumption is about twice their household water consumption[3]. That we cannot afford to have an expanding dairy industry may not be welcome news for farmers, but there are many opportunities for farming calcium-rich vegetables and seeds.

We need a major shift in thinking on diet, and Australia is in a good position to show leadership on this. Australia would not be “going it alone” given that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has recently said that a shift towards plant-based diets is necessary to accommodate a growing population in a resource-limited planet (Hertwich et al., 2010). Either we prepare for the inevitable, or risk being left behind.

•        Producing meat, dairy and eggs requires the heavy use of our environmental resources.
•        Australia should take a lead role along with the United Nations in shifting consumer behaviour towards plant-based diets.
•        Plant-based diets are the easiest way to promote nutrient productivity and to feed more people with fewer resources.

Chapter 9: Global food security

There are gaps in the Australian Government’s analysis on food security. Events occurring on Australia’s doorstep illustrate that food security is out of reach for our neighbours. Also, the animal production systems in place virtually guarantee that another deadly influenza pandemic will occur.

Just as in 2007, global shortages in soybean have caused large price increases that affect the food security of our Indonesian neighbours[4]. Soybean is an important source of nutrition for people on low incomes in that country. It provides a complete source of protein with numerous health benefits. When there is a shortage, vulnerable people are pushed further towards malnutrition. Yet, the vast majority of soybean worldwide is used to feed livestock (Nierenberg, 2005) so that the relatively wealthy can “express their consumer preferences” for more animal products. The global food system, left to the market, makes vulnerable people even more so. Australia participates directly in this. It does not produce enough soybean to satisfy its demand for animal feed, and therefore imports over half a million tonnes per year for this purpose. Australia must begin to wind down its involvement in this system and help to provide soybean at a low price for human consumption in Indonesia.

Disease pandemics originating from farmed animals also continue to threaten global security. The outbreak of H1N1 influenza (swine flu) in 2009 is directly attributable to the commoditisation of pigs as food. According the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this outbreak has caused an estimated 284,000 human deaths (Dawood et al., 2012). Yet, it was widely thought that the event was not as severe as it could have been. A production system that can kill as many people in one outbreak as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 is not a secure one. 

A similar situation is brewing with regard to H5N1 influenza (bird flu) in Indonesia. To date the World Health Organization estimates there have been 191 cases, the majority of them being fatal[5]. Researchers at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics estimated that there would be 40,000 deaths in Australia in the case of a medium-sized pandemic, and the economy would experience a significant downturn (Buetre et al., 2006). The risk is a credible one and the consequences are terrible. The modern reliance on animal foods – whether for personal preference, habit, tradition or convenience – undeniably renders our society fragile and vulnerable. Australia should take a lead role (along with the UN) in steadily reducing the number of animals farmed for food.

•        Australia can contribute to global and regional food security by producing soybean for human consumption in Indonesia and by not participating in the market for soy in animal feed.
•        Producing pig and chicken meat is the primary cause of deadly influenza pandemics such as H1N1 swine flu and H5N1 bird flu.


Australia must align its goals with the recommendations in the UNEP report (Hertwich et al., 2010). As mentioned in that report: 
Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products. 
The shift away from animal-based foods will provide substantial benefits for public health, conservation of natural resources, global food security and equity.


Ascherio, A., Willett, W. C., Rimm, E. B., Giovannucci, E. L., Stampfer, M. J. 1994. ‘Dietary iron intake and risk of coronary disease among men’, Circulation 89(3), 969–974.

Ashaye, A., Gaziano, J., Djouss√©, L. 2011. ‘Red meat consumption and risk of heart failure in male physicians’, Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases: NMCD 21(12), 941–6.

Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics 2007. ‘Feedgrains: regional demand and supply in Australia’, ABARE project 2859.

Buetre, B., Kim, Y., Tran, Q., Thomson, J., Gunasekera, D. 2006. ‘Avian influenza: potential economic impact of a pandemic on Australia’, Australian Commodities 13(2).

Butler, L. M., Wong, A. S., Koh, W.-P., Wang, R., Yuan, J.-M., Yu, M. C. 2010. ‘Calcium intake increases risk of prostate cancer among Singapore Chinese’, Cancer Res. 70(12), 4941–4948.

Campbell, T. C., Parpia, B., Chen, J. 1998. ‘Diet, lifestyle, and the etiology of coronary artery disease: the Cornell China study’, Am. J. Cardiol. 82(10B), 18T–21T.

Darmadi-Blackberry, I., Wahlqvist, M. L., Kouris-Blazos, A., Steen, B., Lukito, W., Horie, Y., Horie, K. 2004. ‘Legumes: the most important dietary predictor of survival in older people of different ethnicities’, Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 13(2), 217–20.

Dawood, F. S., Iuliano, A. D., Reed, C., Meltzer, M. I., Shay, D. K., Cheng, P.-Y., Bandaranayake, D., Breiman, R. F., Brooks, W. A., Buchy, P., Feikin, D. R., Fowler, K. B., Gordon, A., Hien, N. T., Horby, P., Huang, Q. S., Katz, M. A., Krishnan, A., Lal, R., Montgomery, J. M., lbak, K., Pebody, R., Presanis, A. M., Razuri, H., Steens, A., Tinoco, Y. O., Wallinga, J., Yu, H., Vong, S., Bresee, J., Widdowson, M.-A. 2012. ‘Estimated global mortality associated with the first 12 months of 2009 pandemic influenza A H1N1 virus circulation: a modelling study’, Lancet Infect. Dis. 12(9), 687–695. 

Ganmaa, D., Li, X.-M., Wang, J., Qin, L.-Q., Wang, P.-Y., Sato, A. 2002. ‘Incidence and mortality of testicular and prostatic cancers in relation to world dietary practices’, Int. J. Cancer 98(2), 262–267.

Gao, X., LaValley, M. P., Tucker, K. L. 2005. ‘Prospective studies of dairy product and calcium intakes and prostate cancer risk: a meta-analysis’, J. Natl Cancer Inst. 97(23), 1768–77.

Hertwich, E., van der Voet, E., Suh, S., Tukker, A., Huigbregts, M., Kazmierczyk, P., Lenzen, M., McNeely, J., Moriguchi, Y. 2010. ‘Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials, A Report of the Working Group on the Environmental Impacts of Products and Materials to the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management’, UNEP.

Kelemen, L. E., Kushi, L. H., Jacobs, D. R., Cerhan, J. R. 2005. ‘Associations of dietary protein with disease and mortality in a prospective study of postmenopausal women’, Am. J. Epidemiol. 161(3), 239–49.

Khan, S., Abbas, A., Rana, T., Carroll, J. 2010. ‘Dairy water use in Australian dairy farms: Past trends and future prospects’, CSIRO: Water for a Healthy Country National Research Flagship.

Klipstein-Grobusch, K., Grobbee, D. E., den Breeijen, J. H., Boeing, H., Hofman, A., Witteman, J. C. 1999. ‘Dietary iron and risk of myocardial infarction in the Rotterdam Study’, Am. J. Epidemiol. 149(5), 421–8.

Kurahashi, N., Inoue, M., Iwasaki, M., Sasazuki, S., Tsugane, A. 2008. ‘Dairy product, saturated fatty acid, and calcium intake and prostate cancer in a prospective cohort of Japanese men’, Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prev. 17(4), 930–937.

Lee, D.-h., Folsom, A. R., Jacobs, D. R. Jr., 2005. ‘Iron, zinc, and alcohol consumption and mortality from cardiovascular diseases: the Iowa Women’s Health Study’, Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 81(4), 787–791.

Lee, M. M., Huang, S. 2001. ‘Immigrant women’s health: nutritional assessment and dietary intervention’, West. J. Med. 175(2), 133–137.

Nierenberg, D. 2005. ‘Happier meals – rethinking the global meat industry’, Worldwatch paper 171.

Qi, L., van Dam, R. M., Rexrode, K., Hu, F. B. 2007. ‘Heme iron from diet as a risk factor for coronary heart disease in women with type 2 diabetes’, Diabetes Care 30(1), 101–106.

Qin, L.-Q., Xu, J.-Y., Wang, P.-Y., Kaneko, T., Hoshi, K., Sato, A. 2004. ‘Milk consumption is a risk factor for prostate cancer: meta-analysis of case-control studies’, Nutr. Cancer 48(1), 22–27.

Reijnders, L., Soret, S. 2003. ‘Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices’, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78(3 Suppl), 664S–668S.

van der A, D. L., Peeters, P. H. M., Grobbee, D. E., Marx, J. J., van der Schouw, Y. T. 2005. ‘Dietary haem iron and coronary heart disease in women’, European Heart Journal 26(3), 257–62.

This submission was copyedited by The Happy Apostrophe.


  1. It's great to see vegans and vegan organisations weighing in on the National Food Plan. We hope that this yields some positive results. Thanks for the submission.

  2. Thank you for reading our submission. It is now up on the DAFF web site:

    Not all submissions are up on the web yet, but so far I've found two other submissions along similar lines. Hopefully there will be a few more to come.

  3. While we didn't cover the global warming issue, this is a good summary of the current knowledge.
    Global warming can be kept below 2C affordably through steep reductions in livestock production

  4. Some really interesting findings there. Thank you for sharing. I'm linking to your blog on my facebook timeline.