Healthy, sustainable diets, Sustainable Food

Eating for the Planet: Four Glimmers of Hope for 2021

There is a famous Chinese proverb that says ‘When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills‘. 12 months ago who would have foretold of the winds of change, indeed the storm, that has gripped the world in 2020 – a global pandemic which has now brought a global death toll that now stands at over 1.6 million and wrought havoc of global economies and the lives of the 7.8 billion people living on the planet today.  Whilst unforeseen and devastating to many, these winds should be taken as an opportunity to build back a better world and an opportunity to transform our food system – from that which is extractive, destructive and undermines the health of people and planet, to one that nourishes, regenerates, and restores resiliency, placing citizens at the heart of a new food economy.

As we reflect on the whirlwind that has been 2020, we can look forward to 2021 with hope, optimism and with a sense of renewal. Food goes to the heart of many of the key challenges we confront today – climate change, biodiversity loss, obesity, hunger, and mal-nutrition. Dozens of reports highlight food a key driver of these challenges, many of which I have referred to in past blogs. The science and evidence of the need to transform food systems is crystal clear and yet how we do this is somewhat murky. There is a real urgency in the need to address what I would call the ‘research: action gap’ – The gap between the theory and actions at a local level, meeting the needs of those people most impacted by the food we grow, distribute, process, market and eat.

Whilst every new year presents its challenges, and as a UK citizen there will inevitably be many in a post-Brexit world, I want to focus on four glimmers of hope:

  1. Placing Food on the Table in our Response to the Climate Emergency   

The UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November- A pivotal moment if we are to address runaway climate change and restrict emissions to keep the planet below the 1.5-degree heating threshold. Food contributes one third of all global emissions and is therefore must be a crucial part of these discussions – food actions need to be at the centre of our response to the climate emergency. A few days ago, the UK government set out its plan outlining how the UK contributes to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement – known as ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ (NDC). Within the document there was a first recognition I have seen of the importance of food systems and sustainable healthy diets, to meeting these goals. It stated that ‘The UK Is Committed to Delivering A National Shift to Healthy Diets Supported by a Sustainable Food System Which Contributes Towards a Reduction in GHG Emissions.’ The UK government recognising the need for dietary shift is my first glimmer of hope.

Already we are seeing many city and regional governments committing to tacking the climate emergency through integrated food policies. The Glasgow Declaration for example,  commits subnational governments, to reduce GHG emissions from urban and regional food systems to fulfil the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. Where city and regional governments lead, I hope national governments will follow.

2. A National Food strategy for England

The National Food Strategy is the first independent review of England’s entire food system for 75 years, setting out a vision for a better food system. Part 1 was published in June 2020, focussing on urgent recommendations to support the country through the turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Part 2, focussing on more of the systemic ‘root and branch’ reforms, covering the various UK food sustainability challenges, will be published in ‘early 2021’. Whilst I have been involved in various government strategy reviews over the last 10 years, as outlined in my blog ‘twice bitten, thrice shy’,  I am much more optimistic, that as a result of a thorough and comprehensive engagement process, it will be much more difficult for the government to ignore any key recommendations that are drawn. In part, we have a stronger alliance of civil society organisations in the UK, which will mean that they are much more likely to be successful at keeping the governments ‘feet to the fire’, with mounting pressure on the government to act. My second glimmer of hope.

3. A New Dawn for Agriculture?

On 11th November 2020, an Agriculture Bill became law – the first Agriculture Act in over 50 years and not before time. Whilst its not perfect, we should not underestimate the momentous opportunities that this Act now represents – for farmers, citizens and all those working in the food and farming sectors. For the first time there is a recognition that farm support will be premised on ‘public monies for public goods,’ removing a perverse farming subsidy system which been largely based on money for quantity of foods produced (with all the public health and ecological health costs associated with that).  We will, over time, have a farming system that rewards farmers for good animal welfare standards, improvements to soil health, wildlife restoration, climate change mitigation and improving the quality of our water. The ‘Act’ of course only provides the legal framework for future actions and therefore in many respects, is only the start not the end of the process to ensure public money are really aligned with the delivery of public goods. Having said that the Agriculture Act does provide the basis for my third glimmer of hope.

4. A Food System Summit as an Opportunity for Collaboration and a Decade of Action?

In the autumn 2021 the UN Secretary-General will convene a food systems summit to launch bold new actions to transform the way the world produces and consumes food, with the aim of delivering progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  With a focus on five key action tracts aimed at promoting action and discussion, my hope is that it will also explore a new vision and narrative for our food system, that underpins each of these five tracts. A vision and new narrative that engages everyone, including, farmers, citizens and indigenous groups, that moves us from  a very productivist, ‘feed the world’ narrative and mindset to one that really does promote good health in all its forms – human, ecological and animal. With this will come new opportunities for collaboration across cultures, geographies and scales and an opportunity to breakdown the silos that oftentimes prevent transformational action and innovation. My Fourth glimmer of hope.

For many of us Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to reflect on what is important in our lives. My hope for 2021 and beyond is that those winds of change that brought so much havoc in 2020 will herald a change in our relationship with food and the natural world – enabling us to replace walls that divide with windmills that foster a new sense of collective endeavour – that will in turn, foster actions that really do transform our food system for the better.

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