We must transform our food system

| 21st November 2019
Photo: jacinta lluch valero via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
Photo: jacinta lluch valero via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
We can no longer delay the radical changes to our food system - it's high time we take action.

It’s time to converge political support with our collective individual actions, to ensure we save our planet before it’s too late.

The conversation around how we can tackle climate crises effectively has finally gained prominence in political discourse. 

Every sector needs to do its bit to dramatically reduce emissions, a consensus that has prompted a lot of ideological debate regarding complex issues such as climate justice and climate finance. But for some reason, asking for a radical change in our food system seems to be a step too far.

Undoubtedly, our existing food system accounts for a large portion of emissions and is a leading cause of global deforestation. And yet, the environmental impact of our dietary choices has often been markedly absent from the climate debate.

Plant-based?

There’s a large body of scientific evidence that’s urging a shift towards a more plant-based system for the benefit of the planet and it’s people. In it’s 2019 Net Zero report, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) stated that “changes in people’s diets – if this leads to reduced UK production of products such as beef, lamb and milk – could have a significant impact on emissions”.

This finding echoed research from Oxford University which found that eating a plant-based diet could be the “single biggest way” to reduce an individual’s environmental impact.

And now, it seems that more people than ever are on board. Market trend reports from Mintel indicate that sales of meat-free products are forecast to increase by 44 percent over the next five years, with Sainsbury's reporting an 82 percent increase in vegan product searches, as a response to rising demand.

This is reflective of changing attitudes towards diet – with people preferring food that is sustainable, healthier and better for all.

And yet, our food system continues to gear towards the production of food that is bad for the environment, with our food policies remaining resistant towards the adoption of plant-based.

Policy changes

Campaigners aren’t calling for an unrealistic shift overnight, nor are we asking for anything that’s difficult to implement.

The Vegan Society’s Catering for Everyone campaign seeks to mandate at least one plant-based option on every public sector menu. By widening availability of plant-based meals, the public sector would help familiarise wider society with sustainable foods and encourage the transition to more environmentally-friendly consumption behaviours.

This policy would take heed of the advice laid out by the CCC, which calls for the public sector to “take a strong lead in providing plant-based options” and would be reflective of the wants of the public. Chatham House research has found that the public “expect government leadership … to spearhead efforts to address unsustainable consumption of meat”.

In light of the public health crises that currently place a strain on the NHS, this doesn’t seem like a bad idea – research has linked vegan diets (which are typically higher in fruit and vegetables) with lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer.

So why do we remain reluctant to adopt change within policy? Why is the discourse surrounding our food system so divisive?

Decision makers

It doesn’t help that the leading voices of our food and farming system ignore the science altogether. The National Farmers Union claim that we can continue farming more animals and still hit ambitious emission reduction targets within agriculture. With the lack of available technology to reduce the emissions that are inherent within ruminant animals however, this claim seems half-baked.

At the heart of it, we all share a mutual interest in ensuring support for our farmers. It’s imperative that any changes to our food and farming system supports farmers in achieving equity, which is why one of The Vegan Society’s policy recommendations include creating a ‘protein aid scheme’ of support, whereby nutritious and sustainable protein crops would be the focus for new farmers, and would support those interested in the environmental and ethical benefits of farming.

Food and farming policy would also benefit from having a more proactive and transparent decision-making process, whereby a wider range of stakeholders are consulted to prevent one view that protects existing interests from dominating the political discourse, promoting greater unity in turn.

There’s no denying that we need a systemic change of our food system, if we’re to effectively tackle the climate and public health crises. But systemic change cannot result from individual action alone; it also requires government intervention to support the societal shift to more sustainable consumption patterns. It’s therefore imperative that our policies reflect the urgency of the problem that we’re facing and ensure that all sectors work to make this transition easier.

We need a transition that reflects the pressing needs of our society – instead of being reluctant to face the issue, it’s time to converge political support with our collective individual actions, to ensure we save our planet before it’s too late.

This Author

Sabrina Ahmed is a campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society. Interested in veganism and the environment? Take part in our 7-day challenge here.

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