As Rishi Sunak prepares to welcome food industry leaders to an emergency food summit next week, two new reports served as a timely reminder of the dietary changes needed for the UK to reach its health and environmental goals.
The first, from WWF, showed how adopting a diet rich in plants and wholegrains could deliver a 36% reduction in emissions and a 20% reduction in biodiversity loss compared to the current average diet while lessening the burden of ill-health on the NHS. WWF modelled a diet (the third iteration of its Livewell diet) that meets UK dietary guidelines and aligns with environmental targets such as net-zero while deviating as little as possible from current average diets and costing no more. The resultant diet would see fruit and vegetable consumption increase by 45%; consumption of pulses such as beans and lentils grow by 50%; and a significant drop in animal protein consumption with 69% less meat, 25% less dairy and 32% less eggs. Consumption of seafood would go up by 83% to align with health recommendations, reflecting current low levels of consumption.
WWF said responsibility for changing diets could not be placed solely at the feet of individuals and called for governments and businesses to take a number of actions to support the shift. These include new dietary guidelines that integrate environmental indicators into their modelling, and an update to public procurement requirements so that caterers are mandated to serve more legumes, pulses, fruit and vegetables and promote a shift toward ‘less and better’ meat. The NGO also wants to see businesses focus their product or meal development innovation on plant-based wholefoods such as beans and lentils and promote them at the point of sale.
A similar message was contained within a new report released by Compassion in World Farming timed to accompany its ‘Extinction or regeneration’ conference. Compassion modelled how much less meat, fish, dairy, and eggs people in the world’s most developed countries must consume in order to live within planetary health boundaries (based on the EAT-Lancet planetary health diet). It concluded that significant reductions are needed across the top 25 high- and upper middle-income countries to safeguard the future health of people, animals and the planet. “Our insatiable appetite for cheap meat and other animal-sourced foods is damaging our health, causing immense animal cruelty and killing our planet,” said Compassion global CEO, Philip Lymbery. “Unless we wake up and act now to reduce this calamitous overconsumption, it will simply be too late.”
The UK government shows little sign of taking such warnings seriously. Indeed, Sunak has faced criticism for excluding non-industry voices from the private summit which will reportedly focus almost exclusively on measures to control food price inflation.
Elsewhere this week Sunak’s government has performed two U-turns with relevance to the food sector, one of which has been welcomed by campaigners and the other met with anger and frustration. News that existing EU laws will not automatically be revoked at the end of 2023, as was previously set out under the draft EU Retained Law bill, has been welcomed by groups including the RSPCA and Chartered Institute for Environmental Health (CIEH). Instead, the secretary of state for business and trade, Kemi Badenoch, revealed the government will now list legislation it proposes to delete whilst retaining other laws automatically.
There had been fears that key pieces of animal welfare and food safety legislation, along with a swathe of environmental laws, could have been expunged without proper scrutiny. “The UK government’s U-turn is a huge relief to us and to all animals in the UK,” said RSPCA head of public affairs David Bowles. “Key animal welfare laws that help make animals’ lives better were facing possible annihilation, with no consultation built-in for external organisations such as the RSPCA to fight to keep specific laws.”
Phil James, chief executive officer at the CIEH said: “Placing such a comprehensive legislative review, some 4,000 plus pieces of EU derived regulations, on a timer was never going to be achievable and we are glad the government has seen sense on this at long last.”
However Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition, while welcoming the “sensible move” to retain rather than delete laws by default, warned that “this does nothing to solve the bill’s most serious flaws. Ministers will still be able to sweep away protections for rivers and wildlife behind closed doors.”
And so to the other aforementioned government U-turn – the decision to axe a planned strategy for the embattled horticulture sector. Defra had committed to co-producing a dedicated horticulture strategy with the sector in last year’s food strategy but in response to a recent parliamentary question, food and farming minister Mark Spencer confirmedthe strategy would not now be developed. Sustain’s head of sustainable farming, Vicki Hird, wrote that she was “hopping mad” at the news. “I’m angry for the lost opportunities but also on behalf of the great growers I meet who do so much to deliver healthy products and address environmental and other issues. But they are under such huge stress – from labour shortages, energy prices and punishing contracts with the supermarkets.”
The supply of fruit and vegetables to the UK market has been under the spotlight this year amid shortages of items such as tomatoes and cucumbers. “Why a horticulture strategy is not a top governmental priority baffles me given the shelves empty of veg earlier this year and the very high probability that this will reoccur, and with greater frequency, as climate instability starts to play havoc with our supplies here and overseas,” Hird added.