Energy & environment

Feeding the future

One third of all food produced annually around the world is lost or wasted. With the global population set to hit ten billion by 2050, how can we produce more, waste less, and eat the foodstuffs that limit our environmental impact?

In January this year, a team of scientists made headlines with a sprawling Lancet report. The report, entitled ‘Food in the Anthropocene’, made a provocative series of recommendations on how to fix our broken food system. Most controversially, it included what the authors called ‘the planetary health diet’.

According to the authors, a wholesale transformation of the food system is urgently needed. With the global population set to hit 10bn by 2050, it is getting harder and harder to provide enough healthy food for everyone. Already, more than 820 million people don’t get enough to eat, and billions more eat unhealthy diets that contribute to the chronic disease burden.

However, if everyone were to follow the planetary health diet, the planet would notionally be able to support a growing population and future catastrophe could be averted.

“Humanity has never attempted to change the food system at this scale and this speed,” Line Gordon, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, told the BBC. “Whether it’s a fantasy or not, a fantasy doesn’t have to be bad… it’s time to dream of a good world.”

While the diet is extremely detailed – including, for example, 232g of whole grains a day and 31g of added sugars – its key feature is that it’s highly plant-based. It allows just one serving of red meat a week, along with two of chicken and two of fish. This is a far cry from many Western diets, which incorporate meat into every meal.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report has received some pushback from the meat industry. It has also been criticised for its implication that a one-size diet fits all, and for being potentially too high in carbohydrates.

That said, if we do wish to feed everyone ‘within planetary boundaries’, ambitious targets of this nature are essential. Currently, the food industry is responsible for between 19 and 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions, with the bulk of that coming from livestock.

In fact, avoiding meat and dairy products is thought to be the best thing a person can do to reduce their environmental footprint. According to a major analysis published last year, the combined meat and dairy industries use up 83% of the world’s farmland and produce 60% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said lead researcher Joseph Poore, of the University of Oxford.

This may be a tough ask, especially in countries like the US, where the average person consumed 222lbs of red meat and poultry last year. Never mind veganism – convincing everyone to adopt the planetary health diet would require a major legislative push. However, plant-based diets are on the rise, with a growing number of consumers taking action.

“It’s so exciting that the next generation are such conscious consumers,” she says Lauren Lovatt, a plant-based chef and founder of The Plant Hub culinary academy. “We know climate change will actually impact all of us on the world today – we simply can’t keep consuming as we are. Not only is it vital to our human survival but on the whole it is cool to care.”

Lovatt’s academy, based in East London, provides plant-based cookery classes and is seeing strong demand. Over the past five years or so, the number of people identifying as vegans (particularly among a younger demographic) has grown astronomically.

As of 2017, 6% of US consumers claimed to be vegan, up from just 1% in 2014, and a quarter of 25-34 year-old Americans now say they are vegan or vegetarian. Sales of vegan foods in the year to June 2018 grew ten times faster than food sales as a whole.

In the UK, a record 250,000 people signed up to this year’s Veganuary, more than in the past four years combined. And as of April 2019, Waterstones has 2,114 books tagged ‘vegan’, compared to 994 in August 2018.

“We have seen popular brands and producers introduce plant-based dishes and ranges so there are now so many options,” says Lovatt. “I’m confident we are all moving in the right direction and it’s important to remember every little helps.”

This doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavour. In the UK, there are an estimated 22 million ‘flexitarians’ (i.e., meat eaters who make an effort to reduce their consumption).

According to a 2016 study, if everyone on the planet went vegan, this would cut food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2050. Vegetarian diets would cut emissions by 63% and a balanced omnivore diet by 29%.Other studies have found greater environmental benefits to flexitarianism, postulating that anything beyond that leads to diminishing returns.

For those who really don’t want to reduce their meat consumption, the good news is that what we’re eating is only one aspect of the equation. If we’re to truly fix the food system, the other piece of the puzzle is avoiding waste.

“A staggering amount of food is wasted in the UK every year,” says Andy Needham, director at Approved Food. “According to WRAP, the national waste prevention body, more than seven million tonnes of food is thrown away in Britain each year, 70% of which is intended to be eaten, while the rest is the inedible parts.”

He adds that WRAP puts a value of more than £20 billion a year on the amount of food thrown away, which would be associated with over 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Roughly half of all food disposed of is done so by private households, with other spoilage occurring during the manufacturing process and a smaller amount in the supply chain.

“The average UK household throws away £500 worth of food each year – this is food that could go to feed the homeless,” says Grant Keenan, managing director of Keenan Recycling. “When food waste is landfilled, it rots down anaerobically and this process creates methane, which is 21 times more harmful than CO2 and is a significant contributor towards climate change.”

Clearly, the UK is not the only country with this problem. In the US, it is thought that around half of all produce grown in the country goes to waste, requiring around 4.2 trillion gallons of water and two billion pounds of fertiliser for food that’s never eaten. Globally, the amount of food wasted or lost stands at around a third – and ironically enough it’s healthy foods, like fruit and vegetables, that are most likely to meet this fate.

What this means is that you could be the strictest vegan out there – but if you’re throwing away half the contents of your fridge, you shouldn’t let yourself off the hook.

Luckily, governments are waking up to the scale of the problem. In October 2018, the UK government set up a pilot scheme to reduce food waste from retailers and food manufacturers, with further action being considered later this year.

There are also various private initiatives underway, such as the US company Hungry Harvest, which ‘rescues’ excess produce from farmers and wholesalers to sell onto consumers. In the UK, the supermarket chain Lidl recently launched its £1.50 ‘Too Good to Waste’ fruit and veg boxes, which contain slightly damaged or discoloured produce that is still good to eat.

Andy Needham’s company, Approved Food, sells food and drink that is nearing or past its best-before date, which might otherwise have been thrown away. He estimates that, since the business was founded in 2009, it has diverted around four million tonnes of goods from being wasted.

“Unfortunately, misunderstandings about ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates account for households throwing out food that is perfectly safe to eat,” he says. “’Best before’ is about optimum quality, not safety – it smells and looks okay, it’s highly likely that it will taste perfectly fine as well. There is so much confusion around the terminology. In the past, the government has considered scrapping ‘best before’ dates altogether in an effort to reduce the amount of food we throw away.”

Then there are food waste recycling companies such as Keenan Recycling, which takes food waste to an anaerobic digestion plant. Present in Scotland since 2010, the company recently announced plans to expand into North East England.

“In Scotland, food waste recycling has been a legal requirement since 2014,” says Keenan. “In England presently there is no legislation but it is tabled for 2023.”

Looked at one way, fixing our global food system sounds like a herculean task. Our current system, barely fit for purpose today, could lead to calamity later on – contributing to a looming climate disaster and incapable of sustaining a growing population.

The good news is that these issues are being talked about, and that real change is in the air. As many commentators have noted, the ostensible ‘trend’ towards plant-based diets has the hallmarks not of a fad, but of a real shift in Western food culture. Collectively and individually, we should do all we can to redress the situation before it’s too late.

This article appears in the Jun-Aug 2019 edition of Overseas magazine 

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