How can we ‘build back better’ and what’s the role of plant-based diets?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

In July 2020, the UK Global Food Security Programme and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council hosted a workshop with a range of stakeholders from across the UK food system. The workshop sought to determine the research and innovation needs and opportunities around ‘building back better’ through Covid, and how this might enhance the resilience of the UK food system to future shocks. I was one of the 54 on-line attendees, as were Expert Panel members Barbra Bray and Caroline Drummond. A report summarising the discussion is now available: Building back better for increased resilience of the UK food system to future shocks (2020). Workshop Report.

The Executive Summary highlighted the key findings as follows:

  • From an agricultural perspective, research into improving the UK’s soil health is crucial, alongside the development of enhanced climate models. Measures to address the UK’s ageing farmer base are also identified as important.
  • Local food production is a useful supplement to globalised supply and demand, alongside improved data sharing within supply chains and a greater ability of producers and manufacturers to ‘re-pivot’ their activities in a disruption scenario.
  • Expansion of plant-based protein and fruit and vegetable production in the UK through enhanced inter- and intra-crop species diversification is important, not only to reduce risk from disruption to supply but also to better ensure the UK can meet its nutritional needs in any future disruption scenario.
  • Understand the complex range of factors influencing nutrient uptake and consumer dietary choices and the potential for enhancing the nutritional value of foods. This is alongside the role of diet in COVID-19 related deaths and an underpinning need to improve overall dietary health.
  • At a supply chain level, there is a need to identify ways to buffer just-in-time systems against food shortages. Solutions should focus on adaptability, for example, by utilising emerging technologies, such as digital twins, which can help different supply chain actors react to a disruption in concert rather than isolation.
  • In order to facilitate a more resilient UK food system, stakeholders are clear that research and innovation needs to be interdisciplinary and international and that applied research must be adequately funded.
  • It is essential that any research and development opportunities are systemic. If implemented in a piecemeal fashion, resilience will not necessarily ensure that food is affordable, accessible, safe, healthy and produced in a way that underpins, and benefits from, a thriving natural environment. These areas must therefore be consciously enshrined in designs for food system resilience.

 

The prominence given to dietary change and plant-based foods is unsurprising, but I was interested to think about this in the context of the findings of the Peoples’ Climate Vote published on the 26th January 2021.

The People’s Climate Vote was based on 1.2 million respondents (although only 35% answered the policy questions I refer to below), spanning 50 countries, including the UK, and covering 56% of the world’s population. The survey identified six policy areas (energy, economy, transportation, farms and food, protecting people, and nature) each with three sub-options – giving a total of 18 policy possibilities. On average, respondents backed eight out of the 18 climate policies, and 97% supported at least one policy. The most popular of the 18 policy options, supported by 54% of respondents, was to conserve forests and land, while the least popular (35%) was the promotion of plant based diets. Of course, most reading this will immediately point to the fact that to conserve land requires dietary change: True! And others might suggest that the results would be different in countries such as the UK: possibly, but plant based diets did not make it in the top ten policy option preferences for high income countries, including the UK (there is no data for individual countries presented in the report).

What do I conclude from this? Well two things to stimulate thought and perhaps some debate:

  1. Dietary choice is deep wired in people’s identity and selfhood, and even events as grave as the climate change emergency will not shift people’s thinking on food easily or quickly.
  2. Those promoting a very rapid transition in agriculture to organic or, so-called, agro-ecological systems, predicate their arguments on a significant reduction in animal-based food.

The tensions between these two observations are obvious. What is less clear is how such tensions are resolved. Maybe the forthcoming National Food Strategy will give some clear guidance on the balance between regulatory, market and behaviour changes that might be needed to secure both food and environmental security. One thing clear to me is that farming is largely in responsive mode in this debate. Farmers have the skills to manage the land and produce commodities, but precisely which commodities, and at what volume, is inevitably an outcome of markets and regulation. In other words, to end on a provocative note, promoting a wholesale transition to organic farming in advance of a clear sense of how food markets might change, seems rather curious. Farmers will respond to market and policy signals but what these will be, as we attempt to build back a better food system post-COVID, it’s too early to say. This is not to suggest that farmers and other players in the food system are merely passive. They are also players in the development of markets and regulations.

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