How can we normalise sustainable vegan diets?

Friday, 7 July, 2017

Recently the WWF have launched their newly updated Livewell report – looking at what we need to eat between now and 2030 in order to meet our Paris Agreement commitments. The WWF report adds to a growing body of evidence highlighting that vegans have a lower carbon footprint than other groups, and vegans come in well under the 2030 carbon targets. The evidence is clear – we need to eat differently to save the planet, but the question remains; how can we normalise sustainable diets? Campaigns Officer Tom Kuehnel went along to the City of London’s Food Research Collaboration (FRC) seminar to find out what the experts had to say.

The FRC seminars attract people from across many different sectors, from academia and industry to civil society. The FRC was founded by food academic and campaigner Professor Tim Lang, who recognised that Civil Society Organisations and academics were not working effectively together to generate and share the evidence needed to underpin the transition to a sustainable, healthy and fair food system. Tim Lang has written books on this topic and has advised governments on aspects of food policy. Along with Tim Lang, other speakers included Tara Garnett from the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) based at the Environmental Change Institute, who has published many papers on the how and why of shifting to sustainable diets. The final speaker was Modi Mwatsama, Director of Policy and Global Health at the UK Health Forum. 

Tim Lang began by stating that food policy is not, and should not be neutral. There are multiple levels, actors, sectors, groups, incomes and cultures to be taken into account. This complexity might be one of the reasons that food policy is often neglected, but it is also because developing food policy means confronting consumer choice – something that governments tend to shy away from. The prevailing thought is that what the public eats should be left to the market. These challenges are all too familiar to those of us who promote the provision of vegan diets to the public. 

There is a growing body of evidence affirming that vegans typically have the most sustainable diets. This is something the vegan community have been aware of, and promoted, for a long time, but the hard truth is that the vast majority of the public either don’t know, or don’t care about sustainable diets. If we left it to the public’s choice that would do little more than maintain the status quo. Behaviour change solutions at present are little more than fragmented nudges targeting niches within the population. Lang believes that if we are to have a chance at fixing our broken food system we need to shift whole populations in the right direction, and this can only be done by changing norms. This would mean changing what is considered acceptable behaviour, and altering cultural aspirations. According to Lang, this could be done by reframing the economy and setting tougher new norms. At present we have a food system where unsustainable foods are also inexpensive without the real costs to health and the environment being accounted for. Focussing on food pricing will only get us so far – we also need a fair distribution of earnings for workers across the sectors and supply-chains if we are to achieve a truly sustainable food system, and diet.

Lang reminds us that the issue of feeding a growing population in a sustainable way is nothing new, but with a population that is expected to reach 10 billion by the end of the century, we have to change our priorities and treat it as a matter of urgency. We have been trashing our planet since the beginning of human history – even the ancient Greeks cut down forests to rear animals for food. It is obvious that, left alone to market forces, we cannot feed our growing population without irreversibly damaging the ecosystem. We also need governments to take a leading role in promoting healthy, sustainable diets. Although we should be careful not to separate health and sustainability – health has been neglected from pushes for sustainable diets in the past, with the focus being solely on the environment. Lang believes the health of the planet and its population should be promoted in unison. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that vegan diets, which tend to have a higher overall health score and higher nutrient quality, also have a lower environmental impact in terms of GHG emissions, land use, and a high health and environment combined sustainability score. The bottom line is that vegan diets can be both good for people and the planet. 

Although progress towards normalising sustainable diets has been slow, there has been some progress. The panel all praised the changes to the Eatwell guide which included a line about eating less red and processed meat, the inclusion to eat more pulses, and the inclusion of consuming plant-based alternatives to dairy – changes which Mwatsama oversaw in her role in Public Health England groups on dietary guidelines. This demonstrates that change can occur, but we know that this doesn’t go nearly far enough and that the Eatwell guide is far from perfect. We also know that we have work to do to get the public to follow the recommendations currently prescribed – for instance, Mwatsama stated that the UK population would have to reduce their meat consumption by 78% to meet the recommendations in the Eatwell guide.would like to see meat consumption fall to zero, but it demonstrates the barriers we have to contend with to get people to follow even a modest reduction in meat consumption.  

There is always opposition from industry, especially when change is recommended that would affect profits. For instance, even the small change to the Eatwell guide which saw the inclusion of plant-based alternatives to dairy, was met with opposition from the dairy industry. Opposition from industries and large corporations are yet another barrier to adopting whole-sale change in favour of sustainable diets. Circumventing large corporations can seem like an insurmountable challenge, especially when companies like Coca-Cola have larger advertising budgets than the whole budget of the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

All this is not to say that the public cannot affect change from the bottom-up, only that it doesn’t provide the complete solution. The public has a role to play in encouraging behaviour change, and they can have a real impact in putting pressure on large NGOs, health organisations, and governments to transform our food system. There is a huge gap between where we are and where we should be, but we know enough in policy terms to take action, however there just isn’t the political will. This is something that can be changed from the bottom-up; the public can play a role in changing the topic of debates. With the help of the public and other actors it is clear that we can start making progress on normalising sustainable diets.     

By Tom Kuehnel

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