I’ve spent a long time waiting for the UK to produce a proper and detailed plan to reform its dysfunctional relationship with food. The problems are numerous: we don’t properly count the cost of our poor diets, both to our own health and to our environment, and we have dietary guidelines that basically no one follows. Lots of our eating habits – particularly a preference for huge chunks of meat and lots of sugar – were formed in a time when food was less plentiful and more expensive. We now consume these foods on a massive scale while falling short on the fruit and vegetables that would help us avoid diseases in later life.
For the first time, the plan released by the National Food Strategy combines all the sectors involved in our food system – from farming to government procurement, education to industry and trade. No single solution will fix our food system alone, so this kind of comprehensive approach is really welcome. As is the government’s recent announcement of a ban on junk food advertising before 9pm. This new independent report continues the war on junk food by proposing the world’s first tax on sugar and salt for use in processed foods, catering businesses and restaurants. The tax – with some of resulting revenue ringfenced for providing fruit and veg to low-income families – should have big health benefits, building on those of the sugary drinks levy introduced a few years ago.
But the bit that scientists in my field are still waiting for is the part of the plan that will tackle rampant meat and dairy consumption. This is not only contributing to our poor health; it’s also currently making it impossible for us to meet our climate targets. Sugar and salt taxes won’t reduce the impact of our diets on the environment. The Food Strategy review itself makes this very clear; it cites the eye-opening statistic that 85% of the land used to feed the UK population is devoted to rearing animals, even though animal products provide only 32% of our calories. Given the need to act quickly before it’s too late, the report’s suggestions are often frustratingly mild.
For starters, there was no word of a meat tax to match the taxes on salt and sugar proposed in the report. I have a lot of sympathy for the reluctance to propose this tax, having heard the howls of outrage (including from my own family) whenever one is suggested. Yet I was disappointed to see that, among the many sensible and useful recommendations, there was nothing specifically aimed at reducing overall meat dairy consumption, even though the report clearly states that we need to consume 30% less.
I can understand a certain reluctance to enter the incredibly polarised debate between meat-lovers and vegetarians and vegans. But there are many other measures aside from taxes that could help reduce meat and dairy consumption without demonising the great British Sunday lunch. One approach could be asking the food industry to do more, including setting limits on meat content in ready meals, sandwiches and other processed foods, or requiring fast-food retailers to make a certain amount of their offerings plant-based.
Indeed, tackling the ubiquity of low-quality meat and dairy could help move people towards embracing the idea that not all meals have to contain meat in order to be “proper food”. Do we really need the vast majority of our sandwiches to contain a piece of limp, sad and tasteless chicken? Or takeaway curries to contain hunks of chewy and unidentifiable meat? If we can reduce animal foods where we barely notice them anyway, we might have more appreciation for the occasional steak or fine cheese, while still supporting our beleaguered farmers.
The plan asks for better industry reporting of sales of unhealthy and unsustainable foods, but stops short of asking for changes. There is also an aim to make all food sold by public sector organisations conform to healthy diet guidelines (including reducing meat), but this only represents about 5% of total food service turnover – a drop in the ocean.
The biggest idea in the Food Strategy for reducing meat consumption is through encouraging technological innovations, but a lot of these come with big caveats. Methane reduction technologies for cows are hard to combine with happy outdoor herds. Lab-grown meat and dairy are a way off, and won’t make our diets healthier (although they could free up huge amounts of land for rewilding). Alternative proteins may solve most of our environmental problems, but many plant-based meat alternatives can be ultra-processed and high in salt. These innovations shouldn’t be a distraction from the reality that we just need to eat less of the stuff causing the problems.
Many of the measures outlined are a definite step in the right direction; indeed, some of them will be essential if we are going to protect our land and farmers. But without stronger encouragement to pick plants where possible, the kind of change we urgently need to see in the food system is still a way off.
Rosemary Green is an associate professor in sustainability, nutrition and health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine