How we might change the Food System for good

Richard Swannell, Director WRAP Global

As the world’s most powerful leaders assembled in the snowy climes of Davos last month, the talk on everyone’s lips was what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the elite forum was “the defining issue of our time”: climate change.

A World Economic Forum survey ahead of the meeting said it was the leading concern of participants across the globe. Speakers lined up to rally the crowd to take action: Sir David Attenborough, Prince William, and Mr Guterres himself, who issued the starkest of warnings: “we are losing the race”.

There are a number of actions businesses and governments can take to try to reverse this potentially catastrophic trend. But, there is an emerging consensus that none of this will matter if we do not significantly change one thing: our global food system.

As the recent EAT-Lancet Commission report highlighted, if current food production continues unabated it risks causing significant damage to our planet. It means we will not meet our commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It will generate enough greenhouse gas emissions to heat our climate above 1.5oC, which as the IPPC warned last year, will mean more drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

Halving food waste will make a massive difference in reducing these impacts, and WRAP is leading the efforts internationally to make this happen. Making food production more efficient will also help. Supplying and consuming more sustainable food products could have an impact similar in scale to halving food waste. In the UK it is estimated that if we all ate according to the Governments’ Eatwell Guide, this would mean a 32% reduction in the environmental footprint compared to the current diet.

But as much as an unsustainable food system can be a threat to the life of the planet, unhealthy food consumption also poses a threat to our health. 

In the UK, unhealthy diets are linked to more deaths than anything else. And globally, unhealthy eating habits now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than alcohol, drug and tobacco use and unsafe sex combined.

So whilst it might not be palatable to hear, the status quo is not an option. We need to move to a more sustainable diet which is good for the health of the planet, and the human race. 

It is as simple, and as complex, as that.

It will require significant changes from governments, businesses, and all of us as citizens. The question is how? 

Which is why at WRAP, with our long experience of tackling food through reducing waste, we explored the synergies in the food we eat and the food we waste. And examine what we can do to support people to waste less and eat a more sustainable diet.

The results of our research were illuminating and ground-breaking. It demonstrates that real change can be delivered further and faster if a combined approach is taken.

Through talking in depth with citizens we were able to glean some invaluable insights into their attitudes to healthy sustainable eating and reducing food waste and the barriers they perceive to achieving these. 

We discovered that while the two were not connected in the minds of the vast majority of participants, and that there is a lack of awareness about the environmental impact of food, it emerged that unhealthy eating and food waste were often results of the same chains of behaviour, linked to a gap between our aspirations and actions, knowledge and skills. 

Our relationship and attitude to food is hugely complex, deep-rooted and ingrained. We learnt that the barriers and drivers of sustainable eating and food waste are a combination of the practical - for example cost, time, access to facilities; emotional  - including the pressure to provide, eating as family time and food as reward;  and our world view – buying food of better quality, with fewer chemicals and locally sourced were all cited. 

It became clear that participants were resistant to being told about the changes they need to make, but agreed that the most effective way to help them towards sustainable eating and reducing food waste was to have practical tips and ideas that would result in small changes in their daily lives. Building skills, knowledge and confidence in cooking and food management emerged as crucial.  

And there was a clear appeal to supermarkets, as well as restaurants and caterers, to support customers to make changes by offering a wider range of products which were sustainable, healthy and available at the right portion size and price. 

Tackling the deep rooted emotional  and worldview barriers will be a bigger and long-term challenge, but providing more information which will lead to us valuing and respecting food more, understanding where it comes from and how much effort goes into it, will result in less food being thrown away and more careful choices.

Building on these valuable insights, we tested some of our learning through a series of small workshop pilots in Wales which focused on providing groups of adults with messages on nutrition, food waste prevention and home economics. 

Whilst the sample size was modest, the results were encouraging. Nearly three quarters of the participants  made changes to their diet in line with the government guidance on healthy eating – including eating ‘5-a-day’, eating more desirable food such as vegetables, nuts, pulses and wholegrains, all of which are more sustainable, whilst simultaneously reducing foods high in fat, salt and sugar. At the same time there was a demonstrable reduction in food waste.

Changing the global food system is probably one of the biggest challenges we face. But we believe there is an appetite for change amongst citizens and in the food industry. 

To help encourage more sustainable eating and reduce the environmental impact of the food system, retailers, manufacturers and the hospitality and food service sector could  supply more food that helps us all eat more sustainably, building on current trends. 

This could include wider availability of affordable and (crucially) healthier convenience foods which included more vegetables; increasing pack size choices so that smaller households find it easier to  buy what they need and better freezing and storage advice. 

Governments too have a role to play. And we were encouraged to see the issue of food waste given such prominence in the Resources and Waste Strategy for England recently produced by Defra. 

We have a fight on our hands.  But we have shown that you can love your food, and love our planet. Only by working together can we tackle what is one of the key issues of our generation and deliver on our global commitments.