Sustainable sustenance

Categories: Expert guidance

Tim Lang—trustee of Borough Market, Professor of Food Policy at City, University of London and co-author of Sustainable Diets—outlines the need for sustainable diets

Twentieth-century food policy was dominated by efforts to increase food production, stop waste and to get people to have better diets. It’s not been a total success; nearly one billion people are still hungry. Food waste is still staggering. In developing countries, the waste is on or near farms but in rich countries like the UK, it’s consumers not eating all they buy. The good news, though, is that billions more people are fed and live longer lives now than a century ago.

In the 21st century, some of those old challenges remain, however—how to feed 9.7 billion, how to cut waste. But there’s also an entirely new raft of concerns such as climate, soil, biodiversity, and water. Consumers need help to shift to what academics call ‘sustainable diets’. 

What do these two words mean? They mean we need to judge food not just by price or appearance or nutrients, but hidden factors such as how much carbon or water is ‘embedded’ in them—how much water was used to grow it? or carbon emitted?

As people weigh up what food to buy when out shopping, they already apply many different criteria. Some are overt, such as price, appearance, size; others are just below the radar such as convenience, familiarity or whether they know how to cook it. Decisions which seem to be made in a moment are actually the result of years of learning, choice, taste and culture.

Empire-fed system
We might not be aware of it, but policy decisions from the past shape our choices. In 1846, for instance, parliament voted to end the Corn Laws, a system of taxes on imported food which had protected British farmers since 1815. Slowly the country adopted a cheap food policy. The UK could do this because it could draw upon growers across its then huge empire.

This empire-fed food system creaked in world wars one and two, and parliament agreed to rebuild farming after that. Still today, cheapness comes out as more important to the British than to other countries. Our culture has been framed in this way. But it’s also Europeanised in the last half century, with the pursuit of quality and variety, cafe and restaurant life. British food has improved.

What we like and what tastes good to us will vary according to our incomes, our families, our experience, our lifestyles, but we all have a notion of a good diet. Unfortunately, health hasn’t been our number one concern. In theory it is, but in practice we’re eating the NHS into bankruptcy. And now, the sustainability of our diets—whatever our tastes—also needs to be woven across food culture. Our notion of a ‘good diet’ will change in the 21st century.

The science is now clear: food is one of the biggest sources of climate change gas emissions—meat particularly. Less meat but better quality is probably the rule we would all benefit from living by. Food is the biggest driver of the loss of biodiversity, on which life depends. That means bothering about how the food is produced. Food is the biggest risk factor affecting premature death. Diet is one of the key indicators dividing rich and poor. In other words, to use cheapness as our main criterion is short-sighted. Food can be cheap, but expensive in other ways.

Doctors and nutritionists
Since the seventies, doctors and nutritionists have been trying to get Britain to alter our diets. It’s had some effect, but not enough. And now we have all these other criteria to consider, too.

What needs to happen?

The first thing is that governments need to help us. At present, they don’t. A number of countries began to revise their national nutrition guidelines to take the environment into account. Sweden did it first in 2009, but was made to withdraw it after the US and Polish meat industries complained that Swedes had been recommended to eat more seasonally, locally and less meat. Australia went next. The same thing happened. Then in 2015, the US Scientific Report of its Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee advised change, too, but its advice has not been implemented.  

Secondly, the public has got to get behind it. It’s in our interests to manage what we eat today, to enable our grandchildren to eat in the future. Could the UK provide sustainable diet guidelines? I hope so.

Thirdly, this means big changes right through the food system, not just on the land in terms of what and how farmers farm, but in how many energy guzzling processes are expended on food before we get to buy it. We need shorter food chains between primary growers and us.

Ecological niche
Fourthly, we must think about land. In the UK, we need more horticulture. How we feed animals has become part of the problem. We use 30-40 per cent of grain to feed animals. They’ve become our competitors, when they need to be allowed to reoccupy their ecological niche. WE need to eat plants, not animals.

Fifthly, if governments are in hock to powerful forces, let’s ask our city councils and businesses to help. Cities around the world have already signed a pact to act on their food systems. Providing better sustainable diet advice is part of that programme. Companies can do their bit, but they don’t provide independent advice.

This is a huge agenda. But reality is biting already. In my and Pamela Mason’s recent book Sustainable Diets, we propose a simple six-headings approach to sustainable diets. Almost every concern about food can be grouped under these six goals: quality, health, environment, socio-cultural values, economics and governance. The time to pick’n’mix from this is over. All of these features are important.