Getting change on the table…fast

PERSUADING PEOPLE to eat sustainably could take time that we don’t have. The government’s Green Food Project is tackling the big question of what to do right now.


What will our food industry look like in 2050? It’s a fascinating debate and one that everyone has an opinion on. But the bottom line is always the same: the system needs to change. There needs to be less waste, better resource efficiency and, when required and where it’s safe, an embracing of technology. What we eat will also change – whether we like it or not.


Crystal ball gazing is all well and good, but 38 years is not a long time when it comes to the kinds of changes that many are proposing – encouraging people to recycle has taken years, so convincing them to eat genetically modified foods, or less meat, could take even longer. So the big question is what to do now, in 2012.


This is why the government set up the Green Food Project (GFP). It already had its blue-sky paper, thanks to the report “The Future of Food and Farming” published in January 2011. But now it has to think about the “urgent action” required to set the UK, and indeed the world, onto a path of sustainable production, manufacture, provision, consumption and disposal. That’s what the GFP, and its well-respected steering group, is supposed to conjure up.


So what are the key conclusions and how might the foodservice sector play its part? Its initial findings published in July contain 37 pages of recommendations on the possible changes to the food system required to keep food affordable, balance resource use better and cut emissions.


The commitment to an industry-wide debate on genetically modified (GM) foods is certainly an intriguing one, with next year the tenth anniversary of the GM Nation? debates.


But perhaps more controversial will be the commitment to set up a “consumption forum” to drive discussions on sustainable diets.


The role of industry in influencing consumer behaviour and encouraging more sustainable food choices features heavily in the report, with the British Hospitality Association (BHA) set to start the ball rolling with a “forum of leading members from across the hospitality and foodservice sector, working with the sector colleges,
to develop an approach to promote skills and professionalism in sustainable consumption”.


Sodexo was also heavily involved in one of the subgroups that reported to the GFP. Tony Cooke, until recently Sodexo’s director of government relations, led the “curry subgroup”, which included an experiment to change the contents of a meat curry to include less meat and use sustainable ingredients while maintaining the taste and “fullness” of the dish. The group concluded that “retailers and the foodservice sector in particular can lead the shift to reformulated healthy, lower impact products/meals, and using more UK-produced ingredients as part of dishes”.


In an exclusive comment for, Cooke explained how the group took a typical chicken dhansak recipe and challenged a team of Sodexo development chefs to develop an alternative recipe in response to these challenges.


Their response demonstrated the kind of creative flair you would expect from professionals: they minimised the use of high-impact ingredients by reducing the volume of chicken, using chickpea flour in roti bread as an alternative source of protein, substituting coconut milk with chopped tomatoes and cutting out rice by introducing lentils. All while reducing salt, sugar and calories but maintaining taste.


As Cooke explained: “They demonstrated that not only is it possible to dramatically improve the environmental credentials and the healthiness of a curry dish through reformulation and ingredient substitution, but it is possible to do so right now and in a way that would be acceptable to consumers. The feedback from the chefs was that once they understood the challenges, they found it easy to respond.”


The foodservice industry is ready to respond, and some companies already are. It is an issue where some believe the sector can act as pioneers, paving the way for the retailers to follow.


To date, the idea of encouraging people to eat less meat has been a hard concept for retailers and the government to swallow. The GFP’s steering group members had similar issues and found it “difficult to reach a consensus” on issues surrounding the sustainability of meat consumption. The new forum will therefore have its work cut out, but it has to be more than a talking shop.


“The establishment of a consumption forum is a useful initiative, but [it] must report back with clear recommendations and a timetable for action from government, business and civil society,” says WWF-UK’s food lead, Mark Driscoll.


According to the steering group, a “scoping discussion will take place within three months to maintain momentum”. That means next month.


In the past few years some impressive food visions have been published, most notably the Cabinet Office’s “Food Matters” in 2007, which spawned Sir John Beddington’s report “The Future of Food and Farming” – big, high-profile reports that in a combined 320-plus pages were very useful in setting out the challenges. The hope is that, in the Green Food Project, there is a chance to start looking at the “what do about it”. The first report is only 32 pages long; actions will, after all, speak louder than words.