The Friday digest: food miles, mile-high salmon and more red meat

As festival-goers pack their tents, toilet roll and tickets in preparation for this year’s Glastonbury festival, farmers were enjoying a party of their own. Groundswell, which took place in Hertfordshire over two days this week, attracted farmers, foodies, chefs and campaigners to talk and tip-share about regenerative agriculture. The first stories emerging from the event suggested that a debate over the certification of ‘regen ag’ is urgently needed.

George Monbiot was there, naturally, so too Henry Dimbleby and George Eustice (oh, to be a fly on that hay bale). Dimbleby was in need of some time out after reading the government’s national food strategy. Instead, he will likely have been further incensed as the environment secretary offered an apparently limp defence of why most of Dimbleby’s recommendations (and hard work) were ignored.

Eustice is fresh from a grilling by peers on the House of Lords environment committee. They wanted to know how the government would set about changing people’s behaviour in order to achieve net-zero, and attention inevitably turned to meat. There would be no lecturing of the public on eating less meat, he said. “The government have no intention of doing that beyond the Eatwell plate,” he added. 

However, The Grocer revealed that government health advisors last week met to ‘consider making sustainability a factor in the nation’s diet’. “While adherence to UK dietary recommendations is estimated to reduce emissions by 30%, healthier products or diets do not always have a lower environmental impact,” say papers from the government’s scientific advisory committee on nutrition (SACN). 

Tesco is all too aware of that. The supermarket has just been slapped by the Advertising Standards Authority for greenwashing. A campaign promoting its Plant Chef range made various ambiguous claims about products including plant-based burgers being better for the planet – but could provide no evidence to back them up. 

As scrutiny of processed plant-based products intensifies, attention will turn to ways to increase consumption of fruit and veg (another top priority for the SACN). The Sustainable Food Trust reckons the UK could produce double the amount of fruit and veg if the country switched to sustainable farming methods. But would anyone eat them? 

SFT’s new report, ‘Feeding Britain from the ground up’, also proposes halving grain production and a 75% decrease in pork and chicken production. Milk output would also drop by 25%. Tonnages of pulses would double, while beef and lamb would remain steady and “become our staple meats”. The 128-page report presents an intriguing counter to what it calls the “conventional wisdom” that we should all move to a predominantly vegetarian or vegan diet. 

(For those interested by the protein transition debate, it’s worth checking out this blog by Stacy Pyett from Wageningen University in the Netherlands which argues that, in all the fuss around meat to plant switches going on in the developed world, we have forgotten about protein distribution. “Right now the focus on equitability is missing,” she writes).

Food security and specifically UK reliance on imports is being hotly debated currently. SFT’s report is a welcome addition. So too is research by Savills showing that 69% of imported food comes from nations with “worse environmental impact standards” than ours.

The topic of ‘food miles’ – remember them? – was also back in the news this week. The stories followed research by the University of Sydney, published in Nature Food, which showed global food miles equate to about 3GtCO2e – quite a bit higher than previous estimates. For those unable to visualise a gigatonne of carbon – or in this case three gigtonnes – it’s about 19% of total food system emissions (and they are somewhere between a quarter and a third of all emissions). This prompted the team to conclude that eating locally is “urgently needed”, and that the attention shouldn’t just be on shifting to largely plant-based diets.

But before you re-jig your menus and start questioning your tactics to reach net-zero, it’s worth reading this analysis of the research by New Scientist which shows that in terms of greenhouse gas emissions what’s eaten still matters far more than where it comes from. This is because the team stretched the definition of ‘food miles’ to encompass not just transport of the food but all the transport involved – including that of the fertilisers, farm equipment and pesticides – and that bumped the figure up from 9% to 19%, according to Hannah Ritchie, head of research at Our World in Data. 

Eating all food locally wouldn’t actually save that many emissions, either, it seems. If all countries were fully self-sufficient food-related emissions would fall 1.7%. Still, interesting stuff.

Which brings us to that flying fish story and news that New Yorkers will be suitably sated by seafood after salmon farming company Bakkafrost bought a Boeing plane to get its products from the Faroe Islands to dinner plates in Manhatten within 24 hours. A boat takes nine days but emits far fewer greenhouse gases, campaigners told The Guardian. “Rather than finding ways to fly food even more quickly from one side of the world to the other, we should all be endeavouring to create a food system that nourishes the planet’s population and allows nature to recover,” said Sustain’s Kath Dalmeny. Those attending Groundswell would certainly concur.

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