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Foodservice can lead the charge for dietary change

A new report from WWF models the changes needed to bring diets in line with net-zero goals and sets out how businesses can help achieve them. Nick Hughes reports.

“We are faced with an urgent challenge: how to ensure food and nutrition security for a growing population while averting dangerous climate change and restoring the natural world on which all of this depends.”

A good call to action (or CTA in corporate speak) has several qualities: gravity, clarity, urgency, and perhaps most importantly of all, necessity. This one, from WWF-UK chief executive Tanya Steele, ticked all the boxes.

“Our current food system is driving nature loss, polluting waterways and depleting soils at home and overseas. Paradoxically, in our efforts to feed ourselves we are destroying the very systems that food production depends on – a stable climate, rich soils, clean rivers and intact terrestrial and marine ecosystems,” continued Steele in a forceful foreword to a major new report by the environmental NGO published this month.

The question of how to address this so-called “triple challenge” has exercised the minds of some of the brightest and best in academia, civil society, business and even, believe it or not, government for many years. (Whether such systemic thinking was on display at last week’s ‘farm to fork’ summit hosted by Rishi Sunak only time will tell.)

One critical way to do so, argues WWF, is through a dietary transition which would see a significant evolution in what we eat to enable a “nature positive, net-zero transition in the UK”. Its latest report sees it model what a sustainable, healthy diet would look like in 2030. It hardly counts as a spoiler for regular Footprint readers to reveal it requires a shift from animal to plant-based foods and from highly processed to wholefood products.

Foodservice operators are identified as key actors in this transition through their ability to create better food environments (relying on individual willpower alone will not work, according to the report). “In the UK, we eat over 2 billion meals outside the home every year, so the foodservice sector has a major role to play in driving a shift to sustainable diets,” says Jo Trewern, head of consumption at WWF. “As a first step, foodservice providers need to make the healthy, sustainable choice both easy and desirable, and they can do this by focusing meal development, innovation and marketing on nutritious, sustainable, and delicious plant-rich options.”

Carbon calculations

WWF’s latest analysis (the third iteration of its Livewell diet) shows there’s no time to wait to kick-start this dietary shift. The carbon footprint of the current UK diet is calculated at 4.84kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per person per day. Adoption of a Livewell diet (which meets UK dietary guidelines and aligns with environmental targets such as net-zero while deviating as little as possible from current average diets and costing no more) brings the carbon footprint down to 3.12kg CO2e, equating to a 36% reduction in emissions. WWF says this would deliver over half of the food emissions reductions needed by 2030 to be consistent with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C, with the remainder achieved through changes to food production and reductions in food loss and waste. 

With scientists this week forecasting global temperatures could hit that 1.5°C mark by 2027, the dietary shift that has slowly started in recent years needs to accelerate, and fast. Under the Livewell diet, fruit and vegetable consumption goes up by 45%, alongside a 49% reduction in fruit juices and smoothies due to their sugar content. Pulses such as beans and lentils become a greater part of our diet with a 50% increase. Animal protein consumption is significantly reduced with 69% less meat, 25% less dairy and 32% less eggs. Consumption of meat alternatives increases slightly compared to current levels although WWF says reformulating these products to improve their nutritional profile will be crucial if meat alternatives are to play a role in supporting a transition to healthy, sustainable diets. It’s for similar reasons why the diet models a small decrease in consumption of milk alternatives owing to their inferior nutrition compared to dairy milks.

Consumption of seafood actually goes up by 83% to align with health recommendations; a reflection of current low levels of UK consumption. This is likely to prove contentious given the pressure on fish stocks and damage to marine habitats caused by current fishing practices. Indeed, WWF stresses that to increase consumption sustainably means eating more “lower-footprint, sustainably sourced seafood” and shifting away from the big five species of cod, haddock, prawns, salmon and tuna that currently dominate UK consumption. 

Consumption of wholegrain cereals increases by 35%, replacing white, refined varieties of bread, rice and pasta, while products high in fat, salt and sugar (which form a significant part of the under-fire group known as ultra-processed foods), such as savoury snacks, desserts and sugary drinks, see a fall.

It all adds up to a dramatic shift in diets in the space of just seven years. Calls for major UK dietary change are nothing new, of course. Variations on the central theme – that we need to moderate our consumption of animal proteins and ultra-processed foods and eat more plant-based wholefoods such as beans, lentils and vegetables – have been espoused by Henry Dimbleby in his national food strategy and by the government’s independent Climate Change Committee. Even certain pro-livestock groups, like the Sustainable Food Trust, have priced in the need to eat less meat at a population level (and eat ‘better’ meat where we do) as part of a UK-wide shift to sustainable and regenerative farming practices. Opposition to such advice now rests largely with mainstream farming groups and government ministers fearful of ‘playing nanny’ with the electorate by telling them what to eat.

Less meat mantra

Certain businesses, including those in the foodservice sector, have already signed up to the ‘less meat, more plants’ mantra. Compass, Sodexo and Aramark are among the caterers to have publicly stated their intention to increase the proportion of plant-based meal options at the expense of meat, while as of this year 50% of dishes at Wahaca are veg-based with beef off the menu entirely. Even the UK high street fast food chains synonymous with meat are dipping their toes in the water with tentative changes to menus (though mostly during the lucrative Veganuary period it has to be said).

WWF hopes more businesses will follow suit as it set out a series of recommendations for how stakeholders can support the shift to more sustainable diets. The key ones from a foodservice perspective are for businesses to focus product or meal development and innovation on plant-based wholefoods such as beans and lentils. Operators are also urged to include a greater proportion of plant-rich options on menus, focus advertising and promotions on plant-rich options, ensure these are cheaper (or no more expensive) than meat and dairy options, and place them in prominent positions on menus and in canteens – even making them the default option where possible (which Burger King in Austria has been trialling).

Chef training

The report also stresses the importance of training and education. The UK government and businesses are urged to “establish comprehensive food systems and nutrition training for key food system actors, including catering staff and healthcare practitioners, with a focus on healthy and sustainable diets”. A key insight from Footprint’s recent report, ‘A transparent future for foodservice’, was the value chefs gain from having visibility over the environmental impact of menu options. Aramark, for example, has a system that enables chefs to go into a database of recipes and see for themselves in real time the carbon impact of swapping out one ingredient for another.

WWF also has public procurement in its crosshairs. It wants to see the UK government update mandatory and best practice requirements for caterers to serve more legumes, pulses, fruit and vegetables, and promote a shift toward ‘less and better’ meat. It also calls for targets to require a percentage of food procured to meet clearly defined higher environmental standards. Here, there are signs of tentative progress by policy makers. The government set out proposals last year for 50% of public sector food spend to go on food produced locally or certified to higher environmental production standards (a pledge that has since been mirrored by the Labour Party). A consultationclosed in September and a government response is still pending.

Elsewhere, there are calls for investment in sustainable production; integration of environmental metrics into dietary advice; mandatory business reporting on key health and environmental indicators; a standardised methodology for environmental labelling; and support for the adoption of a standardised approach to measuring on-farm environmental impacts, such as the global farm metric.

It’s a long and varied wishlist that reflects both the scale of the task in hand and the multitude of levers needing to be pulled if the revolution in diets is to shift from fantasy to reality.