Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by the Public Health Nutrition Research Group, Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen.

This submission is from a university research group which includes academic nutritionists, food scientists and health professionals. Our concern is to ensure that in debates on food security, due attention is paid to the nutritional quality as well as the overall quantity of food produced, so that the foods available would not only meet energy needs but also well-established nutritional requirements for health. We are also concerned to ensure that communication as to what constitutes a healthy diet and what behaviours producers, retailers and consumers need to adopt to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is evidence-based, clear and consistent.

In summary, we argue that a shift away from a diet rich in animal products, particularly meat, and towards a diet with more cereals and vegetables, would be beneficial for both health and the environment. We also believe that an overall reduction in food consumption and a reduction in food waste can play a major part in achieving a reduction in GHG emissions from the food chain. We believe that national government has a major part to play in supporting changes in food production and marketing, including pricing and promotion strategies, so that consumers are encouraged to select foods which are associated with lower GHG emissions, which benefit their health and is affordable. Local government can support local implementation of these changes and promote examples of best practice. Although more local production of some foods, particularly fruits and vegetables field grown in season, should be encouraged as this can contribute to lower GHG emissions, local self-sufficiency in food supply should not be the aim of local or national policy, since food security needs to take into account global food supply and demand, and to ensure that a healthy diet is available to all, especially those in lower and middle income countries who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change on food supply.

1. How can the environmental and climate change impacts of the food we choose to eat best be reduced? What are the land-use trade-offs that affect food production and supply and how should these be managed?

1. Reducing the environmental and climate change impacts of the food we choose to eat will only be possible if we reduce the amount of meat and dairy products in the diet , since animal, particularly ruminant livestock production is associated with much more GHG emissions than plant food supplying the same energy . However , these foods make an important contribution to the intake of many micronutrients e.g. iron , zinc and calcium, so these should not be eliminated from the average diet but need to be consumed i n lower quantities than at present .

2. For all animals, but particularly cattle, animal production methods which minimise greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to be promoted.

3. Producers and consumers need to be encouraged to include more of the whole carcass , particularly o ffal such as liver and kidneys, in the diet.

4. Pr oduction of a higher proportion of animals with a lower environmental impact than cattle and sheep , e.g. pigs and chicken would help to reduce GHG emissions. Pigs and chickens can be fed on food waste which would also contribute to reducing GHG emissions.

5. While some marginal land is only suitable for grazing animals, the optimum practices for animal production in these areas which are also environmentally sustainable need to be promoted.

6. With a shift away from animal foods towards plant foods, more land used for crops for animal feed will become be available for production of fruit and vegetables (including potatoes), whi ch should ideally be field grown in season to reduce GHG emissions. Local production by smaller scale producers could benefit the local economy as well as reducing transport costs.

7. Agronomic practices which ensure maximum crop yields by through e.g. crop rotation and plant breeding need to be promoted

8. Reducing food packaging and food waste during production, retailing and household use would also contribute to a reduction in GHG emissions . Local authorities can contribute to recycling of packaging and waste but also need to support programmes to reduce the need for recycling .

9. Development of novel packaging methods and new food preservation techniques which still ensure food safety but have a lower environmental impact is needed.

10. Since over half of the UK adult population is overweight or obese, reducing overall fo od intake would contribute to better health as well as reducing GHG emissions. Emphasis on prevention of obesity tends to focus on energy dense foods which are high in fat , sugar and salt (HFSS) , particularly snack and fast foods which may be heavily packaged, and on sugar-sweetened soft drinks, which have high packaging, transport and refrigeration costs.

2. How can the Government help to deliver healthy food sustainably, whilst also delivering affordable food for all?

1. In a project funded by the World Wildlife Fund we have shown that a diet which meets current recommendations for health is compatible with a 25% decrease in GHG emissions ( ). This suggests that promotion of current diet recommendations, as summarised in the Food Standards Agency’s ‘Eatwell plate’ ( ), which encourage lower consumption of meat and higher consumption of fruit, vegetables and cereals, would not only be beneficial for health but would help meet GHG emission targets.

2. The government needs to continue to promote and communicate the messages on healthy eating to consumers, as many are confused by conflicting messages, e.g. on the benefits of low carbohydrate, high protein diets which are widely used for promoting weight loss but are often confused with messages about general healthy eating which involves lower consumption of meat and higher consumption of fruit, vegetables and starchy carbohydrates.

3. A healthy balanced diet does not need to be more expensive than an unhealthy diet if foods are selected carefully but practical information on how to achieve a healthy diet using lower cost foods such as pulses, root vegetables and cereals needs to be more widely available.

4. Since one of the strongest determinants of food purchase is price, the government should be willing to consider using taxes and subsidies on specific food groups to influence consumer behaviour. HFSS foods and drinks are low cost due to the low cost of corn-based syrups and oils and fats: changing price through agricultural policies and subsidies also need to be considered to change the diet of the population.

3. How can consumers best be helped to make more sustainable choices about food?

1. Clear , simple and consistent labelling on packaged and fresh food products is needed as confusion about the relative importance of different factors is created when producers can make a wide range of different claims ( recycleable packaging, ‘food miles’, ‘organic’, local, carbon footprint, fair trade, lower fat, low salt etc.) . The number of labels p er product also needs to be restricted to prevent confusion.

2. Marketing practices (e.g. ‘buy one, get one free’, ‘value pricing’ and ‘meal deals’) tend to promote over-consumption and food waste: legislation restricting or modifying these practices e.g. by making it compulsory to offer the same discounts for all pack sizes or always having water and fruit as alternatives to soft drinks and crisps in meal deals) should be considered .

3. Clear and consistent messages on how to achieve a healthy and sustainable diet with less meat are needed, as there are strong taste and cultural preferences for meat-based foods and dishes. A dvice on how to adapt popular meat-based dishes by reducing the meat content and including vegetables and/or pulses are needed .

4. C onsumer choice could be aided by reformulation of ready meals in the same way as suggested above to reduce the meat, fat and salt content. Minimum nutrient and food standards could be applied to ready meals in the same way they have been applied to school meals , which would help reduce GHG emissions a t the same time as improving the nutrient quality of the meals.

5. Pricing strategies c ould also be used to encourage changes in purchasing patterns in favour of food s with lower environmental impacts. However this would require a robust method of calculating the environmental impact of individual products, which is not currently available.

4. Which aspects of the food production and supply chain are presenting the biggest problems for the sustainability of the food industry?

1. There is a lack of information on the GHG emissions and other environmental costs (e.g. demand for water end energy) associated with different production methods and food preservation techniques e.g. cook-chilled vs. home-cooked foods; dried vs. frozen foods.

2. Reduction of food waste due to the inappropriate use of ‘best before’, ‘sell by’ and ‘use by’ dates needs to be explored: consumers can be confused by the different dates and may discard food unnecessarily. Date labelling may not be needed on some foods , e.g. fresh fruit , if deterioration is obvious or poses no risk to health .

3. Food waste is increased by the exacting standards of size, shape and appearance of foods such as fruit and vegetables which are imposed on producers by large retailers, notably supermarkets.

4. Large retailers need to be encouraged to reduce food waste at key points in the food supply chain, not just those which are easiest for them to adopt but which may have relatively little impact on GHG emissions.

5. Consumers need to be encouraged to accept foods which do not meet these standards of appearance. Greater acceptance of variations in size and appearance could help to support all producers especially smaller scale local producers, with benefits to the local economy.

5. How might the changing powers of local authorities and the localism agenda hinder, or be used to encourage, more sustainable production and supply of food?

1. Giving local authorities more power to control food production and retailing practices could encourage more sustainable production by encouragement of small-scale local production of fruits and vegetables in season (and field grown) , releasing land for allo tments, recycling food waste, encouraging reduction in household food waste. Decentralising procurement could also encourage authorities to become more engaged in making efficient use of food procured and reducing waste, which would be beneficial for sustainability.

2. It has to be recognised that local food production may n ot always be sustainable , as locally produced foods (e.g. tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses) can have a higher environmental impact than food which can be produc ed with lower GHG emissions in other regions, even when storage and transport costs are taken into account.

3. Supporting producers in lower and middle income countries, who are likely to be most affected by climate change, is essential for sustainability of the global food supply. We need to take into account the impact of changes in local or national food production on producers in other countries.

6. How could Government procurement practices be improved to promote better practice across the food sector?

1. Government procurement of food for e.g. schools and hospitals should set an example for other organisations by taking into account GHG emissions of food s purchased and minimising food waste , while not compromising on the nutrient quality of the food provided .

2. Clear guidelines on how to achieve these goals need to be developed and disseminated as there is a risk that efforts could focus on initiatives which would have a relatively low impact on GHG emissions.

13 April 2011