Playing with food (policy): The need to rapidly implement a net-zero National Food Strategy

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The UK food system is responsible for 11% of our GHG emissions, and the UK’s food carbon footprint adds another half to this account. In 2017, 65% of UK adults were considered to have an overweight or obese Body Mass IndexOpens in a new tab (BMI). Brexit’s impact on food supply chain stability and the pandemic’s influence on food affordability only add heat to the argument for food system change in the UK.

The need for a just (food) transition

In July 2021 the final part of the National Food Strategy was publishedOpens in a new tab, an independent review into the state of UK food systems. The UK Government pledged to formally respond with a White Paper within 6 monthsOpens in a new tab, meaning detail on any actions should be forthcoming. The Strategy provided a number of recommendations spanning the food supply chain, from production to consumption. Of the headline figures, perhaps most notable was the need for a 30% reduction in meat consumption by 2032 (against 2019 levels).

However, early indications of intent towards food systems change have not been encouraging. A government evidence document on the need for behavioural change around meat consumption was deletedOpens in a new tab shortly after being published alongside the Net Zero Strategy in October 2021.

In our new policy brief, we comprehensively outline the policies which could encourage this demand-side change. There are a range of both known and more experimental policies that could be implemented with the right political will, and which also respond to the recommendations of the National Food Strategy.

The need for change comes into direct conflict with pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities. As in the broader discourse around ‘just transitions’, dietary sustainability measures – if poorly designed – could lead to further food injustice for low income households and other vulnerable groups.

Questions then remain over how to drive affordable, accessible, nutritious – and critically low carbon – diets across the UK, and what policy mechanisms could be palatable enough to achieve this.

Net-zero nutrition – UK diets in 2050

Following the publication of the National Food Strategy there have been manifold calls to action. So how does ours differ? We focus primarily on the demand-side – that is, changing consumption habits.

In 2019 we responded to a call for evidence on the National Food StrategyOpens in a new tab, and whilst our analysis has developed since then, the principle of the need for demand-side change has remained constant. Action on final demand (the food products we as consumers choose to buy) is disproportionately effective as an intervention given it has a domino effect on emissions throughout the food supply chain. Our analysis, published as an academic paperOpens in a new tab and now as a policy brief, considered the role of changing dietary scenarios to 2050 to explore what scale and pace of action would be required for our food system emissions to be aligned with net-zero.

We considered the role of moderating calorific intake to the Government Dietary Recommendation levels, population-wide shifts to plant-based or at least flexitarian (‘healthier’ less red-meat intensive) diets, and reducing food waste. We show that transformative demand-side scenarios could reduce the UK’s absolute annual territorial GHG emissions from the food system by 52% (2017–2050), and consumption emissions by as much as 49%. These dietary changes would have significant multiple benefits in terms of public health, and in the case of food waste, household costs. Our analysis has also informed the economy-wide decarbonisation scenarios in CREDS’ recent positive low energy futures analysis, and a report on resource efficiency in collaboration with WRAPOpens in a new tab.

But in recognising the role of consumption change towards net-zero, it is all too easy to think that it is the sole responsibility of the consumer, or else that the majority of the UK population will inevitably choose a plant-based diet now there are more available options on the market.

So if such changes have benefits for personal as well as planetary health, why aren’t people making them? And why is the government not driving them?

Food interventions: An unpalatable truth for government?

There is no real precedent for consumption-based food policy towards sustainability in the UK. The closest analogy (but politically exceptional example) is from rationing during WWII. Even though in recent years food policy has focussed on the agriculture and the production system, and public health measures (for instance, the sugar tax), even these policies have not been without criticism.

Change in food policy is also structurally difficult, given responsibility for it is distributed across no less than 16 government departmentsOpens in a new tab. But perhaps the key reason for a lack of policy is the fear over interventionist approaches that are seen to limit personal choice, held by successive governments. This is emphasised by the non-existence of a meat tax anywhere in the world (to the best of our knowledge).

There are some interventions which would facilitate dietary change, and could only come from policy intervention. For instance, mandating carbon footprinting reporting and labelling standards. Indeed, there have been calls from the Food Standards AgencyOpens in a new tab for this, as a matter of simply standardising and simplifying the available information that more progressive companies have already voluntarily provided. Substantive policy mechanisms are therefore needed for the first ever intervention into UK diets to promote sustainability.

Towards a less rocky road for food policy

Our analysis shows that rapid and at-scale action is required to reach net-zero – consistent food emissions, and that demand-side measures could be a key means of getting there.

Critically, the policies we explore offer the chance to simultaneously reduce emissions and improve public health at a time when it is so critical, to level the inequalities which pervade the current system and to shape an environmentally and socially sustainable food system for all.

Banner photo credit: Marisol Benitez on Unsplash