April 4, 2023, by bbzpn

Is the UK losing its way in transitioning towards a more healthy and sustainable food system?

This post is written by Andrew Salter.

The Future Food Beacon was launched in 2017 with the aim of ‘working across the food system to explore ways to future proof food security’, with an ambitious strap line of ‘ A world with nutritious food for all’.  This was at a time of increasing recognition that at local, national and global levels, food systems were unsustainable and impacting on both human and planetary health.  At a national level, there was a clear recognition that our current food system was obesogenic and making a major contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.  As the Beacon reaches its end, and the University launches its new Food Systems Institute, it seems appropriate to consider how far the UK has moved towards a healthier and more sustainable food system.

What is the current state of our food system and is it working?

The UK food system was estimated to produce 185 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2019.  This represents approximately 35% of the UKs total greenhouse gas production, a quarter of this was directly attributable to UK agricultural production (46.25m tCO2e), while almost a fifth was associated with overseas production of food we import (35.15m tCO2e).  The rest was distributed around a range of other activities including deforestation, food and drink manufacturing, transport, and associated activities and losses in retail and home environments.  The Health Survey for England, 2021 indicated that 69% of men and 59% of women in the UK were overweight or obese.   In the same year, Henry Dimbleby and his team produced the National Food Strategy ‘Plan’, a government-commissioned independent review into the food system. In his introduction he said, ‘The effects of climate change are already becoming apparent around the world. Diet-related disease is putting an intolerable strain on our nation’s health and finances – and COVID-19 has only increased the pressure. For our own health, and that of our planet, we must act now.’  In June 2022 the government published the Food Strategy policy paper in response to the Dimbleby report.  It concluded that the government’s ambitions and priorities were to, ‘create a more prosperous agri-food sector that delivers healthier, more home-grown and affordable diets for all, regardless of where people live or their income’.   While welcoming some of the initiatives, many were disappointed that it did not go far enough, with the Guardian headlining: ‘‘Worse than half-baked’: Johnson’s food strategy fails to tackle cost or climate’.  In the subsequent months, the Ukraine war, domestic political turmoil, and resulting economic crisis exposed the true fragility of the UK food system, with many being plunged into food poverty.  In recent weeks, shortages in fresh fruit and vegetables have exposed our dependency on food imports, and the potential impact that climate change may have on food availability.  In March 2023, Henry Dimbleby resigned his position as a government advisor, saying many of his policy recommendations had not been taken forward. In their report, Dimbleby and colleagues set out a range of recommendations based around:

  1. Escape the junk food cycle and protect the NHS
  2. Reduce diet-related inequality
  3. Make the best use of our land
  4. Create a long-term shift in our food culture

These were aimed to address the major issues facing the food system: climate change, biodiversity loss, land use, diet-related disease, health inequality, food security and trade. Dimbleby’s resignation reflects an increasing concern that the UK is losing its way in moving towards a more sustainable and healthy food system.

Climate change further threatens local and global food systems

On March 29th 2023 the independent Climate Change Committee presented a report to parliament in which they stated they had, ‘found very limited evidence of the implementation of adaptation at the scale needed to fully prepare for climate risks facing the UK across cities, communities, infrastructure, economy and ecosystems’.  The report highlights the risks to both national and global food systems of failure to address climate change.  Thus, while it is perhaps inevitable that, at a time of economic crisis, we are focussed on problems close to home, and the food insecurity of our most vulnerable citizens, in the longer term it is vital that we return to addressing the impact of climate change on the global food system.  Recent years have seen catastrophic climate- related famines in several regions of Africa.  Finding sustainable solutions to addressing the problems facing such populations is essential to the future of the planet.  Equally, ensuring that global diets evolve to be healthier, and help avoid further increases in obesity, type 2 diabetes and related problems is vital in reducing pressure on healthcare systems.  While this represents a massive challenge to humanity, over the last century science has shown a remarkable ability to develop systems allowing the mass-production of affordable food. These have dramatically reduced malnutrition in many parts of the world, albeit it with insufficient regard to the impact on the environment or more chronic diet-related disease.  The same ingenuity must now be applied to the ethical and socially appropriate production of more healthy and sustainable foods, on what appears to be an inevitably warmer planet.  The University of Nottingham Food Systems Institute, representing expertise across the whole of the Food System, is uniquely placed to address these problems.

Posted in Future Food News