My thoughts on the focus for a National Food Strategy. Speech at Sustain AGM, 12th December 2018
Firstly I need to say that I am not speaking today on behalf of Sustain but in my own capacity as a Professor of Population Health at the University of Oxford. Today Sustain has invited us to think about what a National Food Strategy – as proposed by Michael Gove - should look like.
My perspective is that of a public health researcher. Now to my way of thinking there are four major threats to public health in the UK. In order of importance these are: firstly global warning, secondly increasing obesity and other diet-related ill health, thirdly the rise of anti-microbial resistance and fourthly the growing problem of mental ill-health, particularly in the elderly. In my view a National Food Strategy needs to address the first three of these threats and may be able to help address the fourth. Source: Springmann et al
Let us remember that there has been a slow but progressive improvement in health in the UK over the past 100 years or so, but all of a sudden this improvement is stalling. The reason for this is largely due to a rise in diet-related ill health demonstrated by a rise in obesity since the early 1980s. Unhealthy diets – diets high in saturated fat, free sugars and salt and low in fruit and vegetables - are now responsible for 10% of all ill-health in the UK. Unhealthy diets are in turn due, not to wilful ignorance on our part, but to the unhealthy food environment in which we make our food choices. By an unhealthy food environment I mean the unhealthy way foods are produced, priced, promoted and placed (i.e. made available to us).
If we don’t solve the problem of this unhealthy food environment then diet-related ill-health will continue to rise and in consequence diseases like heart disease (which we thought we had solved) will be on the rise again and there are already signs of that happening.
But the rise of diet–related ill health, worrying as it is, is not the most important threat to public health. The biggest threat is global warming. The threat isn’t as imminent as the rise in diet-related ill health but just as threatening for all that. And I don’t think it is just a threat to the health of the next generation.
My house in Oxford was built on a flood plain. Every year the floods (which are supposedly controlled floods, according to the Environment Agency) get closer and closer to my back step. If my house is flooded in the next few years I guess my wife and I would cope. But I really do not want to be a frail 80 year-old living in a house which is about to be, or has just been, flooded.
The report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – published on the 8th October – indicates that there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5oC, beyond which even a small increase in temperature will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and consequent suffering for hundreds of millions of people around the globe including some in this country.
As all in this room will know the food system contributes significantly to global warming. The best estimates indicate that around 30% of Green House Gas emissions are associated with food production and about half of those are associated with the production of foods from animal sources.
Our paper in Nature published a week after the IPCC report shows that by 2050, as a result of expected changes in population and income levels, the environmental effects of the food system could increase by 50–90% in the absence of technological changes and dedicated mitigation measures including dietary change, reaching levels that are beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity and including that related to climate change.
For that Nature paper we analysed several options for reducing the environmental effects of the food system, including dietary changes towards healthier, more plant-based diets, improvements in technologies and management, and reductions in food loss and waste. We found that no single measure is enough to keep these effects within all planetary boundaries simultaneously, and that a synergistic combination of measures will be needed to mitigate sufficiently the projected increase in environmental pressures.
However one thing we do know is that huge reductions in meat-eating are essential to avoid dangerous climate change and in developed countries such as the UK, red meat consumption needs to fall by around 90% (white meat slightly less) and be replaced by five times more beans and pulses.
A National Food Strategy has to address such findings. In this strategy the Government needs to state clearly that a reduction in meat and indeed dairy consumption is needed for the good of the planet, and also to state how much this reduction needs to be.
The Eatwell Guide - the UK's official food-based dietary guidelines published by Public Health England in 2017 – indicates that red and processed meat consumption needs to decrease from an average intake of 70g/day to just15 g/day – just for health reasons. So I cannot see why the Government in some of its recent pronouncements has been so contradictory in what it recommending that the UK population should be eating.
The third major threat to public health I mentioned in my opening remarks: the rise in anti-microbial resistance, is like the first two threats - global warming and the rise in diet-related ill health – also clearly associated with our food system through over-use of anti-microbials in the production of animals for food. But there a several in this audience which are much more expert on this issue than I am.
So here, from a public health perspective, are the most important problems with our food supply and consumption that a National Food Strategy needs to address. I am running out of time but I want to stress, very briefly, what I see as the major solution to these problems and that is tax. I cannot see how we can achieve the dietary change we need to address diet-related ill health – both human and planetary – without a major reform of our markets and that by necessity means taking control of prices through taxes and subsidies for foods.
The sugary drinks tax introduced earlier this year show that taxes on unhealthy foods are possible. But we now need to consider taxing foods that are bad for planetary as well as human health, and hence I am hoping that a major plank of a National Food Strategy will be a redesign of existing taxes on food and drinks in this country. I recommend firstly extending the existing tax on sugary drinks to other foods and drinks and secondly reforming Value Added Tax (currently on many foods) though removing the exemption on meat. I am not optimistic but I am hopeful here.