Hard choice to swallow

POLITICIANS FEAR the idea. Environmentalists love it. Consumers don’t understand it. And businesses are beginning to trial it. David Burrows investigates the controversial concept of sustainable diets.


Obesity and diet-related illness are on the increase. Fewer young people are being taught how to cook or grow food. And advertisers are targeting kids with junk food ads on the internet. At the same time the world faces growing fears about food security as the global population increases, more people eat meat and dairy, and the climate destabilises as a result of forest destruction and fossil fuel use. In summary, as Joan Walley, the chairwoman of Parliament’s environmental audit committee (EAC) puts it, “our food system is failing.”


The EAC has just published its Sustainable Food report. Few would disagree with its conclusion that the UK’s food policy is in a mess: messages can be contradictory, leadership is a rarity and quite a few gaps remain in research. The report urges the government to stop dodging and start doing when it comes to developing a sustainable food policy. “The government is understandably sceptical about anything that seems like nanny-statism, but the evidence is clear – intervention is needed to tackle obesity and fix our food system,” says Walley. “In many cases, reducing environmental impacts and getting people to eat more healthily can be achieved in tandem.”


The synergies between diets that are healthy and have a low environmental impact are nothing new. Yet progress on guidelines to help define what is meant by a so-called sustainable diet has been slow. The Sustainable Development Commission began to develop its own model; then it was axed in the bonfire of quangos. The Food Standards Agency also had a go; it tried to integrate sustainability into the Eatwell plate (which provides nutritional guidelines on diet) before its responsibilities for nutrition were curtailed by the Department of Health. Earlier last year, the government’s climate change committee suggested that policy options around encouraging sustainable diets should be considered – but 12 months on and food experts suggest there is “little evidence” that any direct action has been taken. The Foresight report on the future of food and farming also noted that “there is little dispute about the importance of a balanced diet and the role of a moderate intake of livestock products; communicating this to the consumer should be a priority for public health”.


And therein lies the problem. Sue Dibb, the executive director of the Food Ethics Council (FEC), explains: “The initial reaction to some aspects of sustainable diets by some in government and business was to say ‘too difficult’ and for that reason some elements became seen as a hot potato.” Most notable was the idea of eating less meat. “The government is reluctant to be seen to be telling people what to eat,” adds Dibb.


That a sustainable diet has less meat is a difficult concept for government to swallow – and it has already led to conflict between departments. Most revealing was the spat following a report in the Lancet which concluded that in order to meet the UK’s targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, livestock production would have to be cut by 30%. This would also result in a sharp drop in saturated fat consumption, and thus a 15% reduction in heart disease. Ministers at the Department of Health (DoH) and Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) loved the idea. Their counterparts at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), didn’t. A foodfight through Whitehall ensued which, arguably, DEFRA won with the report left to gather dust on a shelf somewhere.


So could the same fate await the new EAC report? While it doesn’t directly call on the government to define a sustainable diet, it recommends a more joined-up approach between the departments responsible for health, climate and food. This summer, DEFRA is expected to launch its “ambitious” Green Food Project which a spokeswoman says will “make the whole food chain as sustainable as possible”.


However, in a statement there is no mention of any links between this and healthy food. The EAC says the project is too narrow and “risks ignoring the wider social and health implications of how we grow, trade and consume food in the UK”.


Given that the government has pinned its hopes on the Green Food Project to provide a focus for food policy, there is a feeling that the EAC report might be quietly shelved. But the big question is: does it matter?


Is there an opportunity for business to take the (ethically sourced) bull by the horns and drive this agenda? Why not create meals that have a little less meat and more of the five-a-day to save money and cater for customer needs? Why not inspire chefs to create more exciting vegetarian options to encourage the meat-reducers out there.


Less meat please, we’re British


Research all the way back in 2003 showed that UK shoppers are keen to cut back on meat. Datamonitor found that 138 million people across Europe were actively trying to limit their meat intake. The UK had the highest level of “meat-reducers” or “flexitarians” at 46% of the population. A more recent study by Euromonitor showed that sales of meat have actually slowed due, in part, to the growing trend towards meat-free or meat-reduced diets.

Those who are cutting back on meat include the health-conscious and green- aware, and those who support animal welfare, as well as those trying to save cash. The shift isn’t quite so great when it comes to dining out, but the Vegetarian Society estimates that the amount of meat reducers could be as high as 5%. And yet little is being done to encourage them to forego meat when they eat out.


Liz O’Neill from the Vegetarian Society highlights research showing that 85% of vegetarians have been offered fish as a vegetarian choice when eating out. “If restaurants can’t even get that kind of thing right, then vegetarian customers are right to be concerned,” she says. But so too should caterers and foodservice operators. Vegetarians account for nearly £2.5 billion worth of food eaten out-of-home every year but, according to the Big Veggie Survey published last month during National Vegetarian Week, 75% are unhappy with what’s on offer – especially the lack of choice. That’s a potential £1.8 billion of sales “at risk”, says O’Neill – and who knows how much more when meat reducers are considered.


John McKears is the foodservice sales manager at Jus-Rol Professional. He says the days when caterers could simply provide a default vegetarian option are long gone. “There is a captive audience out there actively searching for meat-free dishes,” he explains. “This is an important change in UK dining habits and the modern menu needs to reflect this.”


The closest that anyone has come to defining what a sustainable diet might look like is WWF. Working with Aberdeen University, the NGO’s One Planet Food Team came up with the Livewell plate which put an environmental spin on the government’s Eatwell plate . Surprisingly, only a few “simple tweaks” to modern-day diets could make all the difference – top of the list is to eat more veg and less meat.


Some in the hospitality industry are already embracing the idea of menus with less meat and more veg – and not just because they are more sustainable. “I can see a move to less meat in menus from a number of standpoints, including health, sustainability and cost,” says the CH&Co