by Veronica Barry
In the same week as the Pegasus Workshop (see Blog 39), on 24th May, the London City University’s Centre for Food Policy held the Food Thinkers seminar, billed as ‘How can we make progress on ‘normalizing’ sustainable diets?’. The event brought the relationships between agriculture, food production and consumption with ecological and human health into sharp focus.
As a backdrop to the discussion, Professor Tim Lang introduced his new book Sustainable Diets: How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System (Mason and Lang; 2017). The book argues that with the growing understanding of the impacts of food production, food systems and unsustainable consumption patterns on the global environment, an urgent shift is needed in the way we produce and consume food, in order to protect human and planetary health.
“Humanity is entering a new era for food consumption. The new goal for consumers is to eat low impact diets. Only sustainable diets will give future generations the chance of decent living. It is a fantasy to say we can produce our way out of the coming crunch.” (Tim Lang at the launch of Sustainable Diets)
The seminar led onto a debate between Tim Lang and other panel members – Tara Garnett (Director Food Climate Research Network, FCRN), Modi Mwatsama (UK Health Forum) and Corrina Hawkes (Director, Centre for Food Policy) – as to what this could mean in practice and how it might be achieved. The immense complexity of the food system, and its impacts, came to the fore, recognizing the highly contested nature of food policy, and multi-level agendas and actors. It became very clear that the current trends to more unhealthy and unsustainable diets across the world cannot be maintained, and that new thinking and approaches are essential.
Tim Lang spoke about the need for a transition from ‘UDUFS’ (unsustainable diets from unsustainable food systems) to ‘SDSFS’ (sustainable diets from sustainable food systems). Intensive meat consumption for example, came under discussion, with much productive land and large proportion of climate emissions embedded to support this. Springmann et al. (2016) for instance, argue that a transition from meat to more plant based diets could reduce food related greenhouse gas emissions by 29-70%. Consumer behaviour and mass consumption will have to be confronted, and the impact of human dietary patterns and preferences on the world clearly understood. The debate about the impact of meat consumption in particular has been gaining momentum, fiercely argued by some as interference in individual ‘choice’ and overbearance of a ‘nanny state’, whilst others seek strong intervention by government and institutions to help bring about change (Wellesley et al. 2015). Other aspects raised included wider considerations of environmental and social justice and human and worker rights, which are central to creating a more just and equitable food system.
There is some hope for such positive change. The case for joined up governance of food policy is slowly emerging, with civil society actors, municipal governments, Public Health organisations and others increasingly calling for a systems wide approach to food. The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, was a bold gesture, signed in 2015 by over 140 cities from across the world, including Birmingham. This recognised the key part to be played by cities in moving towards more sustainable consumption, with support of healthier farming, ethical working conditions, urban agriculture, and joined-up policy making. The European Public Health Association’s recent report (2017), ‘Healthy and Sustainable Diets for European Countries’, examines in detail the impact of food choices on health and sustainability and calls for more joined-up policy, action and research at a European level (EUPHA 2017). The UN Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015, include consideration of sustainable consumption, zero hunger, support of sustainable agriculture and protection of life on land and at sea, and provide another context in which further action can be taken (United Nations 2015). The Paris Climate Change Accord also provided a way forward, although some argue the thorny issues of unsustainable diets, and particularly meat consumption did not gain attention (Wellesley et al. 2015). In the UK and across the rest of the EU, civil society driven Sustainable Food Cities Network has also begun to create a movement for action and collaborative work towards sustainable food, working with local authorities and local groups.
Lang (2017) argues that food needs a more sophisticated analysis of sustainability in the 21st century, taking the concept beyond Brundtland’s ‘triple bottom line’ of economy, environment and society. A broader view is needed with multi-criteria standards for food sustainability that guide policy makers, Paying attention to health, governance, economy, environment, quality and social values. This would take us beyond the dominant ‘productionist’ policy focus for food, and provide a vehicle to address wider concerns. Sustainable dietary guidelines, Lang argues, could increase the impact of the new sustainable development goals.
Looking broadly at addressing both planetary and human health, the synergies between these and wider agricultural systems, markets and governance are however still not taking place at any significant level. The UK, for example, still does not have any formalised sustainable dietary guidelines. The drivers to change diets to more sustainable patterns need to come from multiple levels, with a clear political steer. Seeing the broader picture in such a complex system is difficult but essential. Waiting for a crisis, relying on industry to voluntarily change, or relying on models of individual choice will not be enough. Despite examples of innovative action from across the world, from civil society to governmental level, the seminar left a sense of urgency about the need for rapid change across all food governance levels before the impact of food production on the environment is irreversible.
Note: The Food Futures seminar will be available on video http://www.foodresearch.org.uk
European Public Health Association (2017) Healthy and Sustainable Diets for European Countries. Available at: https://biblio.ugent.be/publication/8521128/file/8521129.
Lang, T. (2017) Refashioning Food Systems with Sustainable Diet Guidelines: Towards a SDG2 Strategy. March 2017. London: Food Research Collaboration.
Mason, P., Lang, (2017) Sustainable Diets: How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System. London: Routledge.
Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (2015). Available at: http://www.milanurbanfoodpolicypact.org/
Springmann, M., Godfray, C., Rayner, M., Scarborough, P. (2016) Analysis and variation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. PNAS. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(15).
United Nations (2015) Sustainable Development Goals. Available at: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals
Wellesley, L., Froggatt, A., Happer, C. (2015) Changing Climate, Changing Diets, Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption. London: Chatham House. Available at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/changing-climate-changing-diets
Veronica Barry is a final year PHD Student in the Centre for Resilient Environments, Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Built Environment at Birmingham City University.