In order to thrive, both today and in the future, we have to radically change the way we grow, eat and value food. We need to move beyond the traditional productivist approach to a food system that optimises health and nutritional outcomes from available resources, whilst restoring ecosystems and improving farmer livelihoods.
For the last few years I have been using the frame of sustainable nutrition as a way of getting organisations to think differently about food and to scale up action and innovation to ensure that sustainably produced, healthy and nutritious diets for everyone will become the norm, not the exception.
Patterns of protein consumption around the world are hugely unequal. 815 million people are malnourished and lack basic proteins, whilst many others, particularly in higher income countries, consume too much protein, with meat consumption well above World Health Organization guidelines. On top of this, global consumption of meat is also expected to double by 2050.
This has heavy implications for the environment. Global livestock produces about 15% of all direct greenhouse gas emissions. If you take land use into account, global greenhouse emissions account for up to 30% of total global emissions. The production of meat is a major driver of deforestation and habitat loss; livestock production or animal feed cultivation is associated with up to 75% of all forest clearing in the Amazon.
To address these impacts, we need to tilt the balance of proteins in our diets back towards plants. To clarify, this is not about giving up meat, but about eating less but better meat, whilst paying farmers a fairer price for the meat we do eat. Famous food writer and journalist Michael Pollan got it right when he famously wrote, ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ As consumers, the single biggest decision we can take that will significantly reduce our environmental and health impacts is to eat more plants.
In 2017 we witnessed a staggering shift in the popularity of plant based eating – flexitarian, vegetarianism and veganism flourished driven on by public fears over the impacts of foods on our health, climate change and animal welfare issues. Earlier in 2018 retailers such as Sainsburys, Tesco’s and Waitrose all launched new product ranges to cater for this rapidly expanding market. Tesco’s has employed a Director of Plant Based Innovation which is a sure sign that the food industry sees huge growth potential in plant based product offerings!
Whilst food retailers and manufacturers have made some initial strides they need to put plant based eating at the heart of their strategies – They have the power and agency to help influence a change in consumer diets. They need to call on the full array of promotional and marketing tools to steer customers towards more plant-based products, whilst innovating to bring exciting new products to shelves that are tasty, affordable and which cater to a significant and growing flexitarian market. The momentum generated in 2017 has to continue into 2018.
Governments and government policy is also key to this agenda but to date, many, including the UK government, have failed to develop policies which support plant based eating strategies. The case to act is clear: a greater proportion of plants in our diets would enable governments to improve food security outcomes and help deliver the ambitions of two of the worlds most significant international agreements – The Paris Climate Change agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. To date the UK government has failed to demonstrate any international leadership on this agenda. We are on the cusp of a plant based food revolution and now is a time, more than at any time in the past, that governments need to ensure policy and regulatory frameworks support and encourage this revolution.
This requires governments to have a clear food and farming strategy, with a suite of policies that encourage farmers to grow healthy and sustainable food and encourage us, as consumers, to eat more plants. In the UK, there is now a real opportunity, post Brexit, for the government to finally develop a cross departmental food and farming strategy which delivers a range health, nutritional and sustainability outcomes. Policies which support plant based eating should and could be at the heart of these policies – investing in our horticultural sector for instance, reversing the decline in both UK production and consumption of temperate fruit and vegetables, could be one of many policies that will help facilitate a revolution in plant based eating,
This transition towards more plants in our diets won’t be easy and will require significant cultural and value shifts in our relationship with food. This as we know, will need to involve the entire food value chain – from citizens and governments, to businesses and farmers – placing sustainable nutrition at the heart of their behaviour and strategies. The outcome will be to create a more secure food production and consumption system that will be fit to feed 9 billion people.