The plant-based transition

The 'Flower Burger'. 

The National Food Strategy is a huge opportunity to transform England's food system.

Around 70 percent of UK land and the equivalent in land overseas is used to grow our food. Of this whole area, only 15 percent is used to grow the grains, fruit and vegetables we directly consume.

England took a major step towards healthier and more sustainable food and farming with the publication in July of the National Food Strategy Part Two, the result of an independent review of the nation’s food system.

But will this mark the beginning of the urgently needed transition to plant-based food and farming?

The strategy draws on a huge amount of evidence on the environmental impact of animal farming.

Ultra-processed

It singles out beef as the most significant driver of global deforestation and dairy as the leading cause of serious pollution incidents in the UK.

It highlights farming, hunting and fishing as the principal causes of species decline across Europe and identifies livestock farming as a major cause of zoonotic disease.

Crucially, it identifies agricultural land use as a central issue driving both species extinction and the climate crisis.

It states: “Overall, around 70 percent of UK land, and an area about this size overseas, is used to grow our food. Of this whole area, only 15 percent is used to grow the grains, fruit and vegetables we directly consume.”

It also does an excellent job of unpacking the social, cultural, psychological and economic drivers of poor diet. It describes the proliferation of diets reliant on “ultra-processed” foods, which also tend to be high in fat, sugar and salt.

Intervention

Over time the cost of high-calorie foods with little nutritional value has been driven down, and their availability has increased.

Huge spending on advertising for these products, and promotions which incentivise us to buy more than we need, have added to the problem.

The recommendation that grabbed the most headlines was a tax on sugar and salt, designed primarily to encourage food manufacturers to reformulate foods with less of these ingredients.

When products cannot be reformulated, higher costs could also encourage people to choose lower sugar and salt options.

Despite making the case for strong government intervention to address this diet-related health crisis, the strategy holds back from equally strong proposals on animal products, which are a leading driver of the environmental crisis we face.

Around 70 percent of UK land and the equivalent in land overseas is used to grow our food. Of this whole area, only 15 percent is used to grow the grains, fruit and vegetables we directly consume.

Ambitious

We’re told that the National Food Strategy team did consider a “meat-tax”, but this was viewed as “politically impossible” at this stage. Thankfully, the political context is changing rapidly. 

Recent polling suggests that 46 percent of the public would support climate policies which meant limiting their meat consumption, with only 31 percent opposed, and even government ministers have acknowledged the potential for vegan diets to help address the climate crisis.

There are many less controversial measures that could have been included in the strategy but weren’t, such as a mandatory vegan option on all public sector menus, as proposed by The Vegan Society’s Catering for Everyone campaign.

This is a missed opportunity. However, the Strategy did include recommendations that give cause for hope, including a proposed target of a 30 percent reduction in meat eating by 2050.

This comes after the Committee on Climate Change last year called for a minimum 20 percent reduction by 2030. While this new target is not ambitious enough, it would be it would be an important first step to guide public policy in the right direction.

Protein

The strategy also calls for investment in “alternative proteins” including those from plants, insects, ‘cultured meat’, and precision fermentation.

Insect farming poses major ethical questions and comes with a host of possible environmental risks.

Cultured meat has huge potential to displace demand for ‘conventional’ animal products, but currently relies on starter cells and ‘growth serum’ which are derived from animals. 

When it coms to plant-based alternative protein sources, we should cautiously welcome these, without losing sight of the central importance of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts in our national diet.

Mandatory reporting for large food companies is another interesting recommendation. This would include reporting sales of fruit and vegetables, and sales of protein by source.

Farmland

This transparency could encourage companies to set their own targets to reduce animal products and would help people identify those companies driving change, and those holding it back.

Several of the recommendations aim at increasing the consumption of fruit and vegetables nationally. These are mostly targeted at lower income households who eat less fruit and vegetables on average.

These proposals include an expansion of the Healthy Start programme and trailing a “Community Eatwell” initiative, enabling healthcare professionals to connect patients with dietary specialists and give them access to free fruit and vegetables.

While welcome, such targeted schemes don’t match the scale of the challenge. By requiring people to go through healthcare professionals and government agencies to access support, there is also a risk that the most marginalised are left out.

The strategy also makes recommendations on farming policy, such as additional investment for fruit and vegetable growing, and measures to enable habitat restoration on farmland.

Vision

It calls for a sizable portion of the Environmental Land Management scheme budget – which will form the basis for UK farm subsidies in future – to fund restoration of natural and semi-natural habitats.

Addressing issues of land management and food production is essential as this can generate an alternative source of income for farmers who might otherwise see commercial grazing land as their only option.

The government is expected to respond to the National Food Strategy with a white paper - proposed legislation - by January 2022. To match up to the scale of this challenge the government must table ambitious legislation, but what should this legislation look like?

A recent report published by The Vegan Society, Planting Value in the Food System, offers some ideas.

Written by Dr Alex Lockwood from the University of Sunderland, in consultation with The Vegan Society’s policy team, the report lays out a practical but ambitious vision for a plant-based food system in the UK.

Crisis

Crucially, it views our food system through the lens of fairness and equity for all, including non-human animals.

In researching the report, Dr Lockwood met with people from across the food system, including farmers, to understand their perspectives and hopes for the future of food.

The report proposes a Food Sustainability Bill, which would set targets for government and guide food policy to achieve better social, health and environmental outcomes.

This includes targets to reduce consumption of animal products, but with a view to achieving an entirely plant-based system. It also proposes new structures of governance, such as food sustainability council, to review progress and hold the government to account.

This level of ambition is exactly what is needed to address the environmental, social and health crisis in our food system. It demonstrates that there is a practical pathway to plant-based food and farming if we’re ready to take it.

This Author


Tim Thorpe is a campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society and tweets at @TimSRT. He has a background in environmental science and conservation and writes about farming and environmental issues. Interested in veganism and the environment? Why not take the seven-day planet-saving vegan pledge?

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