The UK Government Food Strategy published earlier this month has failed to deliver on recommendations to shift diets away from greenhouse gas intensive meat and dairy production.
Changing the way that we both produce and consume food is essential if we are to mitigate climate change. In our report on “Building a healthier food system for people and planet”, published in 2020, we warned that failure to act quickly would heighten existing national health challenges, place undue financial strain on the NHS, and worsen health inequalities both within the UK and internationally. On the contrary, by making the changes needed to respond to the climate crisis, we have an opportunity to simultaneously bring huge public health benefits and reduce financial pressure on the health service.
It is disappointing that two years later, the UK Food Strategy has not delivered on many of our recommendations, or the recommendations of others including the UK government’s own food adviser, Henry Dimbleby who has criticised the strategy on its lack of ambition to reduce meat consumption, address health inequalities, and improve environment and welfare standards in farming.
Meat production has a high impact on the environment, and diets that prioritise plant-based proteins and limit animal-based proteins are associated with much lower greenhouse gas emissions, as well as better health outcomes. The independent UK Committee on Climate Change has said we need a 20% fall in beef, lamb and dairy consumption to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, while the Eating Better Alliance suggests we need to be consuming 50% less meat by 2030. Dimbleby’s report noted that 85% of farmed UK land is used to either grow food for livestock or to rear meat. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper he said, “Meat consumption in this country is not compatible with a farming system that protects agriculture and sequesters carbon.”
Other recommendations we have called for which are not adequately addressed include food labelling to help consumers make informed choices about their food, and actions that reduce waste.
A recent report by WWF said that up to 40% of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. In the UK, about a third of food is wasted and yet many foods, including highly processed and unhealthy foods are only available in bulk or discount deals that contribute to the 7.1 million tonnes of domestic food waste that is produced each year.
Without clear point of sale information, consumers are not able to make healthy and sustainable choices and two-thirds of consumers support the idea of a carbon label. The government’s strategy does include plans to develop mandatory methodology to be used by those who want to produce eco labels or make claims about the sustainability of their products and says it will continue to work with industry to improve environmental information for consumers. This does not go far enough. Our recommendations call for mandatory environmental labelling for food that both serve to inform consumers and require producers to measure their impacts in a uniform way and be accountable for the results.
Food production and consumption represents around 20% of UK carbon emissions, half of which is related to imports. As well as shifting to more sustainable food production, we will need to sustainably reduce – by 50% – the amount of food lost and wasted along the supply chain, from production to consumption. In order to limit climate change and improve health outcomes, governments need to do far more to improve the sustainability of the food we eat – urgent action is needed now.