Let’s plant the seeds of a revolution in eating

The government’s public procurement plans for food ignore the importance of plant-based diets. Now’s the perfect time to change that, says Mark Driscoll.

We have all heard or seen the overwhelming volume of evidence relating to the significant environmental and health footprints of livestock production. We know that in order to meet the ambitions and targets and ambitions of the Paris Climate Change Commitment and Sustainable Development Goals we have to put more plant-based proteins back in our diets. The question is: how?

One option is to leave it up to the market. In 2017, there was a staggering shift in the popularity of plant-based eating – flexitarianism, vegetarianism and veganism flourished, driven by public fears about health, climate change and animal welfare. This year, retailers including Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose all launched product ranges to cater for this rapidly expanding market. Tesco has even employed a director of plant-based innovation – a sure sign that the food industry sees huge growth potential in plant-based products.

There are also positive signs that the foodservice and retail sectors are prepared to collaborate with producers and civil society organisations to encourage people to eat more plants. One of the most inspirational and groundbreaking initiatives which has emerged during the last 12 months, led by the Food Foundation, is Peas Please, which has received more than 40 pledges from organisations across the food system, encouraging everyone in Britain eat an extra portion of veg a day.

But this won’t be enough. There’s genuine momentum but I don’t believe that market forces alone will bring about the revolution in eating habits that is required. Governments and their policymakers will also be key. To date, many governments, including the UK’s, have failed to develop policies that support plant-based eating strategies.

The 2018 Global Food Policy report by the International Food Policy Research Institute highlighted that a greater proportion of plants in our diets would enable governments to improve food security outcomes and deliver on international commitments. Still, the UK government has failed to demonstrate any international leadership on this agenda. But as we find ourselves on the brink of a plant-based food revolution, now is the time to act. Governments need to ensure that policy and regulatory frameworks are in place to support and encourage this revolution.

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has been rightly praised for his commitments to reducing plastic use and emphasising the need to shift to a public-good approach for farm payments after Brexit. However, he also needs to ensure that he stands up to a livestock lobby that still views the concepts of plant-based eating and less-but-better meat as threats rather than opportunities.

Gove needs to get going on this and he should start with the government’s public procurement plan for food and catering services and the balanced scorecard produced by the coalition in 2014. These make little reference to plant-based meals; there is no recognition of the need for a greater proportion of plant-based proteins in our diets. In March 2016, the new Eatwell Guide emphasised the importance of sustainability in our diets: the need for less meat and dairy and more fruit, veg and pulses.

Now is the perfect time for the government to review and devise a new public procurement plan for food, which should include specific recommendations for upping the proportion of plants within diets. According to the latest research, the average UK consumer’s fruit and vegetable consumption needs to increase by 64% to be in line with the government’s dietary guidelines. Over the past few years fruit and vegetable consumption in the UK has been stagnant at best. British-grown fruit and veg need to be much more prominent in meals served in schools, hospitals and prisons. This is a win-win for our health, our waistlines and the health of our planet.

Of course, this transition towards sustainable consumption won’t be easy; it will require significant cultural and value shifts in our relationship with food. This will need to involve the entire food value chain – from citizens and governments to businesses and farmers – placing plant-based eating at the heart of their behaviour and strategies. It’s about time the UK government steps up to the plate and a good place to start is with a public procurement plan that reflects the need and urgency of the health and sustainability challenges we face.

Mark Driscoll is a freelance sustainable food systems consultant at Tasting the Future.

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