Eating better to feed the world more fairly

Policies to shift our eating patterns towards less and better meat eating and more sustainable plant-based diets must be at the heart of an ethical food manifesto, writes Sue Dibb

The horsemeat scandal did have one upside. It helped raise awareness of the true costs of ‘cheap’ meat, from its impacts for animal welfare, the environment and health, as well as for UK farmers squeezed by the economics of opaque and complex supply chains. Yet the political and food industry response has been to get back to ‘business as usual’ as soon as possible. It is questionable whether the scandal has yet helped catalyse longer-term solutions to our broken food system.

As political parties begin the task of developing their manifestos for the next election, there is an opportunity to look above the parapet of short-term political expediency and see the win-wins that addressing our unsustainable patterns of food consumption can have for cutting health bills, for the environment and for greater fairness within food systems.

Eating Better: for a fair, green, healthy future is a new alliance that is campaigning for food policies that put sustainable consumption at the heart of solutions to national and global food security challenges. We are calling for action by governments, the food industry and all those who can make a difference to help people move towards eating less meat and more food that’s better for us and the planet, as part of the vital task of creating sustainable food and farming systems.

Launched in July 2013 with the endorsement of celebrity chef and campaigner, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Eating Better’s growing support includes over 30 national organisations, including the Food Ethics Council, spanning the breadth of health, environment, social justice, animal welfare, international development, resource use, sustainable business and faith perspectives.

Eating Better encourages a culture where we place greater value on the food we eat, the animals that provide it and the people who produce it.  Eating Better supports farmers who produce meat in a sustainable way. Moderating our meat consumption – whether red, white or processed meats – while also choosing ‘better’ meat that is naturally-fed, has a known provenance and is produced to high animal welfare, environmental and quality standards can help support farmers without being more expensive for consumers.  A ‘less and better’ approach to eating meat with meals based around a greater variety of plant-based foods will ensure healthy, balanced diets that are better for the planet and for fairer food systems too.

So what’s needed to help catalyse this dietary transition?

Addressing consumption as well as production

Firstly, policy to address food security needs to focus as much on consumption as production.

There’s a current oft-repeated mantra that food production must increase by 60-70% to feed the anticipated world population of 9 billion by 2050. The proposed solution: greater (sustainable) intensification of agriculture has resonated with politicians including the UK’s Coalition Government.

But now many are questioning this assumption, recognising that we can’t grow our way out of the food crisis the world is already starting to face. We cannot hope to feed a growing and more affluent global population healthily and fairly, prevent dangerous climate change and protect global ecosystems while continuing to consume and export wasteful, high meat (and junk food) over-consuming diets to the rapidly expanding economies of the world. The figures simply don’t add up, unless we make changes to ways in which we eat and use the food that we produce.

And that means cutting the scandalous amount of food that is wasted as well as facing up to the impacts of increasing meat consumption. Roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally1. Livestock production has a huge environmental footprint and grain-fed livestock production is highly inefficient. UNEP calculates2 that each kilo of cereals used for animal feed will product 500kcals for human consumption whereas if used for direct human consumption will give 3000kcal. Halving food loss and waste could feed an extra one billion people. And halving world consumption of grain-fed meat could feed a further two billion more people.

As Bill Gates has succinctly stated: “Raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact. Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people.”

The message that what we eat is important for future food security is gaining recognition by politicians. Earlier this year MPs on the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee called for greater efforts to improve global food security.  Measures include encouraging UK consumers to reduce their meat consumption and a stronger focus on pasture-fed livestock production.

And the UK’s champion for global food security, Professor Tim Benton has warned Government Ministers that it is no longer good enough to think exclusively of ways the country could produce more food, Government had to work on ‘demand’ through changing the way we eat and wasting less food.

It’s also a message that’s been endorsed by stakeholders involved in the Defra Green Food Project’s Sustainable Consumption working groups to address the role that diet and consumption play in the sustainability of the whole food system. Their report, published in July, includes draft guidelines for healthy sustainable diets.

Government adoption of guidelines and advice for consumers and the food chain are a necessary step in developing policies and practices that support dietary transition. While official bodies in other European countries, including France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have produced such guidelines, the coalition government stepped back from the previous administration’s commitment to provide integrated advice to consumers.

Policy integration and coherence

Secondly, we need to see better integration of health, environment and farming policies both at UK Government level and EU. This means addressing the multifaceted challenges of poor nutrition and obesity, degraded and destroyed ecosystems, climate change, waste and over consumption of resources, animal suffering as well as inequalities and unfair trading systems, not in isolation but as the connected impacts of unsustainable patterns of food consumption and production.

This raises the question of whether we have the right institutions/governance arrangements to support such integrated policymaking either at an expert advisory level or at Ministerial level? It’s fairly obvious that we don’t. In the UK there is no longer an expert body tasked with advising government on sustainability. And the cross government framework that was introduced as part of the previous administrations Food 2030 strategy arrangements were dismantled by the incoming Coalition Government.

And improving policy coherence is not just a UK challenge. It is one of five priority areas for the European Commission’s forthcoming Sustainable Food Communication.

Any ethical food manifesto needs to ensure policy coherence. The good news for politicians and consumers is that a healthy diet is also largely good for the environment. While wasting less and eating less meat offer win-wins for squeezed household food budgets.

Roles and Responsibilities

Thirdly, we need to recognise that the transition towards healthy, sustainable diets will not happen under business as usual. Any ethical food manifesto needs to consider the levers, incentives and nudges for consumers, farmers and food companies to create the cultural and economics shifts necessary to make our food system greener, healthier and fairer.

There’s an important role for Governments to work with stakeholders to create the vision, provide the policy coherence and the political will to use the levers that only governments have (including regulatory and fiscal), as well as being well placed to convene expertise, fund research, report and monitor progress.

Eating Better is calling on government to:

  • develop an integrated approach to healthy, sustainable consumption and production
  • agree and adopt the guidelines for healthy, sustainable diets and provide integrated advice (for the public and the food chain) on healthy, sustainable diets that includes advice on less and better meat consumption.

  • develop policies and practices to support the transition to less and better meat consumption and production.

  • engage with EU policy processes, including developing EU-wide strategies to promote increased consumption of plant-based foods and reduced consumption of meat products.

Business are key enablers of behaviour change and Eating Better has already identified business focused policies and practices to help customers reduce their meat consumption including:

  • Reformulate products (ie reduce a proportion of meat in processed foods and replace it with wholesome and healthy plant-based ingredients)
  • Develop a wider range of low meat and meat alternative meals
  • Communicate with customers including providing positive promotions/advertisements for low/reduced meat and plant-based foods.
  • Offer and promote ‘better’ meat choices.

Eating Better’s vision is a world in which everyone values and has access to healthy, humane and sustainable diets. High meat consuming countries and individuals have reduced their consumption in line with health recommendations and greenhouse gas reduction targets.  Meat is produced humanely and sustainably, its production provides sustainable livelihoods, environmental benefits and it is consumed in quantities consistent with good health and global resource use capacity.

This is no ‘nice to have’ vision, it’s fundamental to ensuring our future food security and needs to be at the heart of any ethical food manifesto.

Sue Dibb is coordinator of Eating Better for a Fair, Green, Healthy Future www.eating-better.org 

You can follow Eating Better on Twitter @Eating_Better

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