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3. Promoting a diet that is good for people and planet

Serving up climate change

What we choose to eat not only affects our health, but has implications for the health of our beautiful planet.

In fact, ‘unhealthy diets now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined. Global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience and constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation and transgression of planetary boundaries’.

Approximately a quarter of our global direct carbon emissions are from food and agriculture. This figure increases to 30% when you account for land-use change (the land converted from forest to farm). In addition, around 70% of all extracted fresh water is used for irrigating farms, and agriculture is the most significant cause of deforestation globally (and therefore biodiversity loss).

In short, the average western diet is currently a far cry away from that needed to keep global warming well below two degrees, whilst reversing the sobering trend in biodiversity loss. And whilst our environment suffers, so too does our public health, continuing the degenerative cycle.

Breaking the cycle

When we start trying to make healthier choices, we discover that many of the choices that are good for our own personal health are also good for the environment, our community, and our local economy. It’s a virtuous cycle. Choosing the right food for our bodies helps the environment and farmers. There’s an incredible ripple effect way beyond just that one choice.

Anna Lappé, American author and sustainable food advocate

Making healthy living accessible

WWF has developed a series of Live Well Plates for adults, teenagers, the elderly and vegans – proposing what we need to eat between now and 2030 if we are to meet our Paris commitments and limit global warming below two degrees. It builds on the UK government’s Eatwell Guide for a healthy, balanced diet by throwing a range of environmental criteria into the mix. Food clearly plays an important role in supporting a healthier planet and lifestyles, but if we are to achieve the changes needed, recommended diets also need to be accessible. The Livewell Plates proposed by WWF are estimated to be slightly more expensive when compared to the average current diet (assuming we still have an economic system that rewards bad practice). 

The Food Foundation’s ‘The Broken Plate’ report, highlights how unhealthy foods tend to be three times cheaper than healthy food. And the poorest 10% of UK households would need to spend 74% of their disposable income on food to meet the Eatwell Guide costs , let alone the Livewell Plate’s costs. This raises systemic issues and questions. 

“Problems of diet and ill-health have been staring us in the face for decades, but successive Governments have done precious little about it. While this affects everyone, people in poverty either can’t afford enough to eat or have unhealthy diets.” 

“Many of Britain’s poorest families have little or no choice. They either go without food or buy unhealthy food because that’s what they can afford and get hold of.” 

“The Government knows about the problem. It’s time to stop the dither and delay, endless talking and consultation, and get on with it.” – Lord Krebs, chairman of the Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment .

Some key actions emerge that also align with recommendations in the 2019 EAT-Lancet Report:
“Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts. Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits” . Although it does depend what your diet is like to start with.

Eat more sustainable fruit and veg

There is general agreement that we will need to eat more, in some cases double, plant based proteins (beans, nuts and pulses) and fresh fruit and veg.

Eating seasonal produce and sourcing it from local agroecological producers is the ultimate win-win situation for people and planet.

Reduce food waste and packaging

Sadly around one-third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste. Where this food is wasted varies between countries, but households are thought to be responsible for around 53% of all food waste in Europe. 

If we eliminate global food waste we could reduce our food systems’ contribution to greenhouse gas emissions by up to 11% , making it a priority area for climate action. 

Buying what you need, preserving and freezing seasonal surpluses, striving to use all parts of your fruit and veg and composting the parts you can’t eat, can all go a long way to achieving zero food waste. 

From a resource point of view, it makes sense to avoid packaging where possible. From a climate perspective however, packaging is not a huge contributor. Milk cartons contribute about 5% of the carbon footprint of milk, for example, and plastic packaging contributes about 4% of the carbon footprint of pork.

Case study: Unicorn Grocery, Manchester

Not only is the Unicorn Grocery a vegan company, workers cooperative and living wage employer, but it prioritises the sourcing of wholefoods and local and seasonal fruit and veg. Intaking this stance it makes it much easier for its customers to eat a diet that is good for people and planet. Unicorn also takes a creative approach to reducing its impacts, having a self-imposed carbon tax that contributes to the work of Trees for Life in restoring the Caledonian Forest. It also allocates an annual amount equivalent to 5% of its total wage bill to projects working towards a more sustainable world and offers free bike repairs for its employees.
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