Tim Lang’s Field Notes: Sustainable diets: the elephant in the policy room

Tim Lang's Field Notes: Sustainable diets: the elephant in the policy room

Professor Tim Lang

Thursday 3rd June 2021

With the evidence for changing consumer diets so strong, why is so little happening to encourage the Sustainable Diets Transition? It’s one of the great challenges of the day but largely being flunked. Why?

This is not just an academic question but live food politics. Four major political events in 2021 will indicate whether policy-makers either understand the sustainable diets challenge or continue to duck it.

Next month, G7 meets to debate post-Covid-19 regeneration. As chair, the UK could champion serious policy redirection, but the fear is it’ll pursue domestic politics by signing an Australia-UK food trade deal. If serious about the environment, it would prioritise agri-food systems change. Australia’s ecology is on a knife edge – aridity, fires, rising temperatures. The UK’s farming model colonised the Antipodes and now shouldn’t encourage more meat production there, let alone taking it half way round the world in dirty bunker oil fuelled ships.

In September, the UN food systems summit (UNFSS) meets, with a pre-summit in July.  Some of my friends argue it’s been hi-jacked by food corporates. I say: therefore breathe life into it. What’s the alternative? Ad hoc, uncoordinated actions? Now’s the time to win public support to inject high morals into food power politics.

In October and November, two UN Conventions of the Parties (COPs) meet, the first on biodiversity, hosted by China, the second on climate change, hosted by the UK. With food a major driver of both, the COPs should commit to big consumer change in line with the science. Far from a business hi-jack, business and politicians are timid. Now is when civil society and science should inject resolve, energy and coherence.  We should be uniting five overlapping crisis arguments.

First, health. Early warnings about modern diet’s impact on public health came from WHO in the mid-1970s and have grown steadily ever since. Emphases have varied, notably over types of fat, but broad messages are constant. With affluence and rising incomes, populations eat more, eat more unnecessary and over-processed foods, and under-consume the ‘good’ elements, notably fruit and veg. Diet-related ill-health blights world development differently for rich and poor.

Secondly, ecosystems. Agri-food is a key driver of global damage for biodiversity, soil loss and depletion, potable water use and climate. That’s why conservation groups now want consumer change.

Thirdly, contaminants. An avalanche of food-based pollution continues. Pesticides, plastics and life science industries claim they underpin modern food systems but are intrinsic to the problem. Seas are polluted with human detritus. Darwin’s ‘web of life’ is being unravelled by the Anthropocene.

Fourthly, culture. Wanting more food when food is scarce is understandable, indeed hard-wired. Our bodies can store energy. But now the food system over-produces food, at least a quarter of which is wasted. Food culture has severed connections with biology and the biosphere. We literally consume the Earth. Tastes are manipulated. Mouths and minds are fed by an avalanche of ultra-processed foods.

Fifthly, the economy. Planning is unfashionable but COVID-19 has shown why prevention and protection are essential for decent societies. Food systems can only be sustainable if new common frameworks exist. G7, UNFSS and the COPs ought to do for the 21st century what the Hot Springs Conference did in 1943 – say enough is enough, we must do agri-food differently. Will Joe Biden be a Roosevelt? The UK Prime Minister? Not unless pushed.

Tackling this runaway food world is hard. It means facing down opponents and building new consensus. Blocks and lobbies must be outmanoeuvred.

Meat and dairy consumption are key indicators of whether we take sustainable diets seriously. A sustainable food system doesn’t need to be meat-free. Meat has strong identity and ideological resonance. It’s fissured by gender and identity issues. It’s an indicator of income. Lots of people like it. But feast-day food has become everyday food, cheapened by factory farming. There’s a case for benign animal production but output and consumption need to be replaced by more horticulture and plant-centred diets. Put animals back into better ecological niches.

Huge commercial interests promote unsustainable diets. Packaging allows for branding. These ‘consciousness’ industries need reining in, not cosseting by the self-regulation they currently enjoy.

Part of our problem is political fear and inertia. Policy-makers believe the public is hostile to the ‘nanny state’. Delete the word ‘nanny’ and insert ‘parental support’ and suddenly everyone is in favour. It’s time we called out this reluctance to act. Who wants their children to get fat or die young? Who actively seeks a planet worsened by food?

The UK government has an opportunity to get a grip here, most immediately with the ‘National’ (ie English) Food Strategy Part 2, due in mid-July. But it must stand up to those who block or fear change.  Sustainable diets are more than a matter of meat. They mean reconnecting health to the land. Alas, farmers have allowed themselves to be used (as they were in Brexit) over this, when their real interest lies in long-term sustainability.

In the USA, Australia and Sweden, farm lobbies resisted moves by scientists to shift guidelines. France is the latest state to advise consumers drastically to cut recommended meat consumption. But there was fury when the city of Lyon cut meat in its school meals.

In Britain, when BBC TV’s Blue Peter created one of its famous badges to reward kids for being ‘environmentally friendly’ by turning off lights, using less plastic and replacing meat-based with plant-based meals, UK farmers successfully lobbied to get this dropped. How sad.

So which is it to be? Sustainable diets or continued drift? Academics and NGOs must redouble efforts to reshape individual choice, tackle misinformation and stop collusion in humanity’s self-harm. Not for the first time, helping normalise sustainable consumption means recognising bloated political elephants in the policy room. And getting tougher on the enemies of progress.

Tim Lang is Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, and a Special Adviser to the Food Research Collaboration.

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