British Medical Journal reports on Italian role in WHO’s decision to pull out of EAT-Lancet Commission event in Geneva

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LONDON/GENEVA, APRIL 9 – A few days after the decision by the World Health Organization to pull out of sponsoring a global initiative promoting healthier and sustainable diets across the world, the British Medical Journal published an article whose focus is the role of the Italian Permanent Representative to the International Organization in Geneva, Gian Lorenzo Cornado, and of its diplomatic delegation raising concerns about the impact of the diet on people’s health and livelihoods. The article was later picked up also by the Daily Mail

The event—the launch of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health in Geneva, Switzerland on 28 March—still went ahead, sponsored by the government of Norway, but the WHO dropped its planned sponsorship after Cornado questioned the scientific basis for the diet which is focused on promoting predominantly plant based foods, and excluding foods deemed unhealthy, including meat and other animal based foods.

Cornado warned that a global move to such a diet could lead to the loss of millions of jobs linked to animal husbandry and the production of “unhealthy” foods, and destroy traditional diets which are part of cultural heritage, The BMJ reports today. The initiative “urging for a centralised control of our dietary choices” risked “the total elimination of consumers’ freedom of choice,” he added.

The diet proposed by the commission consists largely of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and no or a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.

The commission outlines a hierarchy of policy levers that can drive uptake of this diet, 3 which begins with “soft” levers, such as providing consumers with information followed by guiding their behaviour through incentives and disincentives, and ends with “hard” levers restricting and then finally eliminating dietary choices including laws, fiscal measures, subsidies and penalties, trade reconfiguration, and other economic and structural measures.

Cornado wrote to permanent representatives to the United Nations and international organizations in Geneva to highlight concerns about the diet and question whether it was appropriate for WHO to back the event. The letter, seen by The BMJ and dated 20 March, says that “a standard diet for the whole planet” regardless of the age, sex, general state of health, and eating habits “has no scientific justification at all” and “would mean the destruction of millenary healthy traditional diets which are a full part of the cultural heritage and social harmony in many nations.”

Walter Willett and Johan Rockström, co-chairs of the EAT-Lancet Commission, defended their dietary approach in a letter, also seen by The BMJ, which asked WHO several times why it had decided against sponsoring the Geneva event. WHO provided a statement saying only that its director of nutrition, Francesco Branca, who is a commissioner of the EAT-Lancet Commission, participated as a panellist in the 28 March 2019 Geneva event and talked about WHO’s work on sustainable healthy diets. “[His] views and opinions are expressed in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect official WHO positions,” the statement said. (@OnuItalia)