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Mediterranean Diet: Italy @UN Geneva asks to stop conflicts of interest when dealing with nutrition issues

GENEVA, NOVEMBER 3 – Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development of WHO and Prof. Anna Lartey, Director for Nutrition of FAO recently complained about Italy’s action to promote the Mediterranean diet. As a consequence, Dr. Branca asked Italy to provide with the “scientific evidence on which its action in favor of the Mediterranean diet is based”, while Prof. Lartey suggested Italy to promote a dialogue “at the scientific level and no longer at a political diplomatic level”, the Italian Mission at the UN in Geneva reported on its website.

“Neither Dr. Branca nor Prof. Lartey apparently considered the clear position taken in this field by the Italian Government and the strong mandate it has received from the Italian Parliament to promote the Mediterranean diet in all international forums. Neither Dr. Branca nor Prof. Lartey seem to have considered that the Mediterranean diet has been recognized by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage of the humanity and by the scientific community as one of the healthiest diets in the world”, replied the Italian mission stating that “regrettably, notwithstanding their status of international civil servants, both Dr. Branca and Prof. Lartey are members of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health whose prescriptions and policies, as stated by the Director-General of the WHO, Dr. Tedros, do not represent the positions of the World Health Organization. This is why WHO withdrew its co-sponsoring from the launch of the EAT Lancet Commission controversial Report on “Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems” which was published earlier this year”.

“We strongly believe that neither the World Health Organization nor the Food and Agriculture Organizations, nor their high ranking officials should have anything to do with the EAT Lancet Commission, in order to avoid any possible conflict of interest which might cause a reputational damage to both WHO and FAO. Here we are explaining why”, said the Italian Permanent Mission.

Following are some consideration from the Italian delegation:

What is the EAT-Lancet Report?
EAT describes itself as “a global, non-profit startup dedicated to transforming our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption and novel partnerships”.

The report calls for a new globalized food production and consumption system, urging for a centralized control of our dietary choices. By reintroducing and enforcing the controversial and non-scientific distinction between “healthy and unhealthy foods”, the EAT-Lancet Commission “quantitively describes a universal healthy reference diet, based on an increase in consumption of healthy foods (such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts), and a decrease in consumption of unhealthy foods (such as red meat, sugar, and refined grains)”. The prescription looks very close to a vegetarian/vegan diet.

Who produced the Report?
The EAT-Lancet Report has been produced by a Commission of 37 members, including Dr. Branca and Prof. Lartey who participate as independent experts.
Criticisms however was raised on the actual independence of the Commission, in light of the links of the initiative with important financial and economic organizations: EAT-Forum was in fact founded by the Stordalen Foundation, that it is funded, among other entities, by the Wellcome Trust. One of the main EAT partnerships is with FReSH (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health), one of the key initiatives by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), which brings together some of the biggest corporations in the food, bio-tech, pharmaceutical and chemical sectors.

The EAT-Lancet report “acknowledged funding from the Wellcome Trust, including financial support to the secretariat to coordinate collation of the Commission and for travel fares, accommodation, and food for the Commission meetings of the EAT-Lancet Commission” and confirmed that “all authors received funding from EAT and the Wellcome Trust”.

What is the objective of the EAT-Lancet Commission?
The Commission, through its report, wants to promote a radical transformation of the way we produce and consume food, based on a “global healthy diet reference”. It attracted however strong criticism even just from the nutritional point of view: several nutritionists pointed out how the “reference diet” pictured by the Commission would be deficient in iron, vitamin B12, retinol, vitamin D3, vitamin K2 and sodium (for reference: Harcombe Z, “The EAT Lancet diet is nutritionally deficient”).

A standard diet for the whole planet, regardless of the age, sex, metabolism, general state of health and eating habits of each person, has no scientific justification at all. Moreover, it would mean the destruction of millenary healthy traditional diets which are a full part of the cultural heritage and social harmony in many countries.

How do they want to achieve this objective?
The Commission identifies different types of public interventions to “change the global food system”, which range from softer measures (such as “educating” the public through mass, public information campaigns) to harder ones, which include incentives to some specific categories of food products, disincentives to other categories, restriction of the freedom of choice of consumers and, as a final step, the TOTAL elimination of the freedom of choice by consumers. Once this final step is reached, the Commission indicates that the food industry should simply “withdraw inappropriate products” and “diversify the business”.
The policy terrain indicated by the Commission is broad: in its report, it affirms that “countries and authorities should not restrict themselves to narrow measures or soft interventions. Too often policy remains at the soft end of the policy ladder”.

What consequences could the recommendations of the EAT-Lancet Commission actually have?
Consequences on public health are largely unclear but it has already pointed out how the dietary regime indicated by the Commission could actually end up being nutritionally deficient and even dangerous, in the long term, for human health.
What is certain, on the other hand, are the economic consequences of such a “transition”: the food environment revolution advocated by the EAT-Lancet Commission would certainly lead to economic depression, especially in developing countries. Read as a reference the statement made by the Minister of Agriculture of Ethiopia, which concludes by affirming “My hope is that the report, given the attention it’s receiving, can provide an opening for a more productive exchange on the role of livestock in the developing world. In fact, I’d like to invite you to take a drive in the Ethiopian countryside. You will see a world where livestock are not part of the problem. They are part of the solution. It’s a much larger, more complex and promising world than the one depicted in the report.” The total or nearly total elimination of foods of animal origin (in particular meat and dairy products) would mean the end of cattle farming and many other activities related to the production of meat. Besides, all companies involved in the production of foods or beverages that the authors arbitrarily regard as unhealthy will be forced to withdraw such products from the market and diversify their business. This provision would concern all producers of meat, milk, cheese, sweets, wine and a lot of other foods, with dramatic consequences on the economy of many countries, including the loss of millions of jobs and the end of hundreds of thousands small and medium-size enterprises, especially in the developing world. (@OnuItalia)

Il giornale Italiano delle Nazioni Unite. Ha due redazioni, una a New York, l’altra a Roma.

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