Irish food system ‘fuelling premature death and disability’ due to diet-related diseases – report

Lack of policies cause ‘ultra-processed foods and excessive red and processed meat’ to dominate

Ireland’s food system is “like a slow motion disaster, fuelling premature death and disability” due to diet-related chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes and obesity, according to a report from the Climate and Health Alliance (CHA).

A lack of policies to shape a healthy food environment has caused “ultra-processed foods” - such as sugary drinks, sweets, crisps and takeaway meals - and “excessive” levels of red and processed meat to “dominate the Irish diet”, it says. This has been at the expense of fruit, vegetables, plant proteins and sustainable seafood, and has worsened the climate crisis.

“Ireland’s dietary habits need to change radically as part of an ambitious plan to protect public health and the environment,” the alliance concludes in a position paper examining the health and environmental consequences of how Irish food is produced and consumed.

The alliance is made up of a range of medical, public health and social care professional organisations, NGOs and advocacy groups on the island of Ireland including the Irish Cancer Society; the Irish Medical Organisation and third level institutions.


It is calling for a special Cabinet subcommittee to be established “to oversee a food revolution” – with the farming industry being part of the solution.

“This is like a slow-motion disaster unfolding before our eyes,” said alliance spokesman Tim Collins, chief executive of the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF). “The global food system we have created can feed the world but has also made us heavier and sicker, it destroys wildlife, pollutes our rivers and air and produces a third of our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Mr Collins said “we now have a disturbing overconsumption-undernutrition paradox” in Ireland, with the report noting that “the emissions from a typical Irish adult’s diet exceed planetary boundaries by a staggering 226 per cent”.

The report, whose lead author is IHF dietitian Orna O’Brien, draws on previous research and was published at a conference, organised by the CHA in Dublin, attended by Minister of State Pippa Hackett and experts from the UK and Ireland.

‘Junk food cycle’

It recommends six key areas where Ireland needs to drive change, including ending “the junk food cycle”; promoting transition away from over-consumption of processed foods to a more plant-based diet including beans, peas and lentils and harnessing the power of global and national guidelines. A reduction in food waste; improving agricultural practices and land use changes are also endorsed.

“We need to more than halve the carbon footprint of what we eat, and to achieve such a huge reduction we need to focus on policy level changes and structural systems changes,” Ms O’Brien said.

The report coincides with new Ipsos research commissioned by the IHF, showing only one in five people understand how large an impact reducing intake of red and processed meat or ultra-processed foods will have on lowering greenhouse gases.

Nearly 40 per cent of respondents, however, say public information campaigns should be developed to reduce excessive consumption of such foods and promote healthier, more sustainable foods.

Almost a third (32 per cent) would favour higher taxes being levied on unhealthy and unsustainable foods while nearly two-thirds believe the Government is not providing enough funding or support to farmers to encourage climate-change practices.

“These findings relate to what the Climate and Health Alliance paper is saying: our current food system is harming human and planetary health and we need to transition to a healthy food system in Ireland in partnership with the agriculture industry,” Mr Collins added.

Expense of the environment

This is a scenario where poor diet kills one in five people globally, he said. “We need to realise if we eat to maintain a healthy weight and not overeat, this reduces food waste and means we are not contributing to extra greenhouse gas emissions. It is no longer acceptable to chase economic gain at the expense of the environment.”

The CHA seeks to highlight public health harms arising from climate change while emphasising the health benefits from tackling global warming and provides a platform for health professionals and organisations to act and advocate for greater Government action in addressing the climate crisis.

The current global food system has resulted in devastating climate change; pollution, biodiversity collapse and nature loss, their report adds.

“It perpetuates inequality and food insecurity, leaving the poorest of our society to suffer the worst health and environmental effects. This triple burden of pandemics – obesity, climate change and malnutrition – are all interrelated in a global ‘syndemic’ that shares common underlying societal and political drivers, for example, powerful commercial engineering of food overconsumption, weak political governance systems and unchallenged pursuit of economic growth.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times