13 recommendations on sustainable nutrition

21. October 2023
Marco Verch / Flickr

In Germany, the federal government should promote plant-based meals in community catering, tax and subsidise food in an environmentally friendly way and introduce an environmental and health label for food. These are the three most important recommendations of a randomly selected citizens' dialogue. On 20 October 2023, a total of 13 concrete proposals for measures were handed over to the Federal Environment Ministry and the Federal Environment Agency.

Further recommendations are

  • Integration of sustainable nutrition as a cross-cutting issue in school and day-care curricula
  • Staff training for the conversion of food supply to quality standards of the German Society for Nutrition in public institutions, taking sustainability aspects into account.
  • Introduction of a "sustainability TÜV" certificate
  • Introduce compulsory labelling of animal husbandry practices in food retailing
  • Carry out an information campaign to promote plant-based nutrition
  • Mandatory presentation of the environmental and health label in advertising
  • Abolish subsidies for factory farming and promote sustainable agriculture
  • Promote regional cultivation and sourcing of plant-based products
  • Establish a council of experts on sustainable nutrition
  • Promote citizens' initiatives for sustainable nutrition

How we eat does not only influence our own well-being and health. The origin and production of food also have a variety of effects on the environment and society. The Federal Environment Ministry and the Federal Environment Agency in Germany had therefore invited randomly selected citizens from all over the country to take part in a citizens' dialogue. Together with experts, the participants developed proposals for measures to achieve a "food transition".

From 13 to 15 May 2022, a citizens' workshop was held in Kassel with 56 randomly selected citizens from all over Germany. Through discussions in small groups and exchange with experts, various measures for a nutritional transition were developed. In order to sort, bundle and further elaborate their ideas, the participating citizens came together again in October 2022 in an online workshop. After intensive discussion in small groups, 34 concrete ideas for recommendations were developed.

Focus on plant products

The thematic focus was on measures that can increase the consumption of plant-based products. "Shaping more plant-based diets is a decisive lever for a sustainable nutritional transition," it says on the website of the Federal Environment Ministry.

In the second half of 2022, 15 participants of the citizens' workshop tested the measures they have developed in their own everyday lives. The aim was to find out how the measures can be implemented in everyday life and how the people who implement them feel. The three measures tested included:

  1. a diet in everyday life according to the recommendations of the so-called "Planetary Health Diet".
  2. a bonus system for purchasing environmentally friendly foodstuffs
  3. Price changes in purchasing by means of taxes (for relatively environmentally harmful foods) and subsidies (for relatively     environmentally friendly foods)

Nutrition Strategy of the Federal Government

The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) presented the German government's food strategy on 17 January 2024. Core objective of the strategy is to promote a healthier, resource-conserving and plant-based diet - also taking into account current problems such as rising food costs. Vulnerable groups such as children, people with low incomes and people with an immigration background were to be given special consideration. The nutrition strategy is to set nutrition policy goals and guidelines, define fields of action and include concrete measures that are as measurable as possible.

The strategy was developed in several phases, with the first step being the preparation of a key issues paper with the most important guidelines in December 2022.

Representatives from different sectors invited

For the development of the strategy, representatives from different sectors such as consumer protection, the food industry, environmental protection, science and civil society were involved by the BMEL in various formats in the period from June 2022 to February 2023.

From 27 to 29 January 2023, a citizens' forum organised by the BMEL took place in Berlin, to which the participants of the Citizens' Dialogue on Sustainable Food had been invited. The 28 participants were able to give their assessments on each of the 13 thematic areas of the key issues paper of the nutrition strategy and suggest possible ideas for measures for the respective areas. The results of the event were handed over to the BMEL.

Workshop in March 2023

In March 2023, a smaller group of 23 participants of the citizens' dialogue had been invited to Erfurt to further develop and complete the recommendations that had been developed and tested. Experts from science and practice supported them in concretising the measures. In this three-day workshop, the citizens discussed with each other, exchanged their experiences and agreed on final details. Afterwards, they voted together on the final 13 recommendations.

After the completion of the citizens' dialogue, a review phase followed in a further step in summer 2023. 14 experts from science and practice had reviewed the recommendations of the citizens. They evaluated the measures in particular with regard to their potential effectiveness, acceptance and financial consequences for the population. The experts also gave recommendations for what they considered to be sensible ways of implementation or modifications.

"Effective option for climate-friendly and health-promoting nutrition"

Overall, according to the experts, the recommendations developed in the project are an effective way to achieve climate-friendly and health-promoting nutrition. This would be especially true if the proposed measures were cleverly combined and sufficiently communicated.

Furthermore, in May 2023, as part of a so-called outreach participation, additional citizens from population groups that cannot always be reached through classic participation formats were invited to a workshop. The previous Citizens' Advice was presented to them. In a family centre in Berlin, 16 participants were able to discuss and express their opinions on three recommendations they had selected themselves.

Addressing changes that include all people

The aim was to work out to what extent the realities of life are compatible with the recommendations, where there are hurdles or points of contact that reinforce or minimise disadvantage. The objectives were reflected in the motivations of the participants, which were particularly to address a change that includes all people in order to create a just sustainable diet.

The final recommendations of the Citizens' Dialogue were presented at a final conference on 20 October 2023. Citizens from the process as well as representatives from politics, science and civil society came into conversation during this event. At the end, the citizens' advice was handed over by the citizens to the Federal Ministry for the Environment and the Federal Environment Agency.

"More sustainable and fair agriculture is needed"

"Many of us have been able to change our own behaviour and even inspire our personal environment for sustainable nutrition through the knowledge and positive experiences gathered in the Citizens' Dialogue," write Citizens' Dialogue participants Kathrin Dahlhausen and Nina van Empel on behalf of all participants in the foreword to their recommendations. For a turnaround, however, not only a change in eating habits is needed, but also more sustainable and fair agriculture. "Our vision is a healthy, sustainable diet for all people. We want this planet to continue to be a livable home for people, animals and plants."

The invitation to action that the Citizens' Dialogue participants accepted from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety is something the participants would like to return to policymakers as a mandate for action in the form of the recommendations presented. "We will all have to be measured by whether we have acted in the narrow window of time that remains. Will you, as our representatives, now pick the fruits of our citizens' dialogue and make bold decisions to ensure sustainable and healthy food? Let us act together now!"

Paving the way towards sustainable nutrition

The citizens' dialogue makes it clear "that informed citizens are quite prepared to support far-reaching political measures for a more plant-based diet," says the brochure on the process. Currently, high prices for plant-based (alternative) products, a lack of information and unfavourable nutritional environments prevent them from turning to plant-based alternatives more often.

The results of this dialogue could pave the way towards sustainable nutrition - "but only if they are used: It is now up to all decision-makers in the food system to incorporate citizens' demands into future strategies to promote sustainable diets".

The sortition procedure

For the citizens' dialogue, municipalities were selected in a first step and contacted for the random selection of citizens from their civil registers. The basis for this was the municipal directory of the Federal Statistical Office, in which every politically independent municipality in Germany is listed, categorised according to various characteristics.

When selecting the municipalities, all federal states as well as different municipality sizes were taken into account according to the proportion of their inhabitants in the total population.

10,640 citizens invited

Using a random number generator, a list of 214 municipalities had emerged, of which 74 had agreed to provide a sample from their population register. On average, each registration office had sent 135 data records. In total, the address data of 10,640 citizens were submitted.

In a second step, the randomly selected citizens received an invitation letter from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection. Of the persons contacted, 256 expressed interest in participating in the citizens' dialogue (response rate: 2.4 percent). From these 256 persons, a group of 80 persons representative of the German population was selected and invited to participate in the citizens' dialogue. Of these, a total of 56 people took part in the first citizens' dialogue. The dialogue fell in the immediate post-COVID-19 period and there were many cancellations at short notice due to illness.

Approximately representative image

The evaluation report of the Research Centre for Democratic Innovations at the Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main states that the citizens' dialogue achieved an almost socio-demographically representative picture of the population in terms of age, size of municipality and federal state. It also reached groups of people who often participate less frequently in participation processes. Compared to other participation processes, an above-average number of women and people with a low level of education and household income were represented. Nevertheless, people with an academic education were somewhat overrepresented compared to the German population and the participants had an above-average level of political interest.

It is criticised that only a few perspectives were brought in by experts who are fundamentally sceptical about interventions in the food system.

Implementation by participation and nutrition experts

The participation process on sustainable nutrition was commissioned to the participation company ifok together with NAHhaft e.V., the Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW) and the Goethe University Frankfurt am Main.

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