“Losing less and eating smarter” – practical steps towards a more sustainable approach to food
At the start of 2021, allmanhall published a blog regarding our commitment to a focus on sustainable food supply. In this, it was highlighted that focussing on final food miles and local produce may create too simplistic a view.
“Currently most food policy aimed around mitigating climate change focuses on reducing CO2 emissions within transport and energy and eating locally. Whilst policy changes in these areas is essential, it can be short-sighted often overlooking other vital emissions within the food sector… There are 3 key areas where emissions should be considered to ensure a full understanding… agricultural emissions; supply chain emissions; consumption and waste.”
(The full piece can be read here.)
In this, our latest article, we delve into the topic of consumption and waste, providing areas for contemplation and some practicable actions that may help us all take small steps towards two of the University of Copenhagen’s Professor Katherine Richardson’s four key themes when it comes to solutions to sustainable food systems: losing less and eating smarter.
Consumption – “eating smarter”
Rapid population growth – alongside increased purchasing power and rising per capita consumption – has put further pressure on the need for food, space and raw materials.
Forecasting from the International Food Information Council has predicted that consumers will show greater concern for the planet when making their purchase decisions, with sustainability and climate change making up two of the top five trends in food and nutrition. Despite changing attitudes, many are still confused about what sustainability means, with 63% of consumers stating that environmental sustainability would have a more significant influence on their choices if it were more easily known.
Currently, most of the planet eats either too little, too much, or the wrong type of food. Globally, calorific and animal protein consumption per capita is rising as more of the population move towards a western diet (see table 1). In the UK, however, one in eight are vegetarian or vegan, with 21% also becoming flexitarians. 85% of shoppers also state that sourcing sustainable and ethical foods is important to them.
Table 1. Changes to per capita calorific consumption over time (Kcal per capita per day). (Table reproduced with amendments from WHO 2009)
In their 2017 book, ‘Sustainable Diets’, Pamela Mason and Tim Lang present “sustainable diet as a code for better consumption” stating that “a good diet for the twenty-first century is one that is health-enhancing, has low environmental impact, is culturally appropriate and economically viable.” They identify a series of potential responses and, in doing so, note that while truly sustainable diets are complex, “two-hotspots have dominated attention”. These are:
- meat and dairy
- food waste.
With strong evidence to support the overconsumption of meat being harmful to human and environmental health, adopting a more plant-based diet will make food systems more sustainable. For consumers to keep within their planetary boundaries (i.e. no net environmental damage), no more than 98g of red meat and 203g of poultry should be consumed weekly. Despite this, high-income countries surpass necessary nutritional requirements, consuming double this. Furthermore, animal products account for 83% of agricultural land-use, whilst only accounting for 18% of human calories. Reducing livestock would also reduce freshwater pollution, water use, and applications of nitrogen and phosphorous.
Linking future UK diets to the outputs of sustainable food systems will be vital in mitigating further ecosystem degradation; however, encouraging consumers to choose more sustainable food is not straight forward. Dietary interventions must account for social, economic, and demographic variables, so as to reduce the widening of existing nutritional inequalities. Unsustainable eating practices can be attributed to factors such as a lack of knowledge, incorrect beliefs on the relative importance of meat, ingrained habits, lack of incentives, affordability, or cultural identity. Purchase interventions can aid better food choice, ranging in intensity, from the complete elimination of choice (meat-free days in the canteen), to fiscal disincentives (changing prices and, at a Government level, tax rates), or by providing good information on sustainable food choices (better labelling on food products could empower consumers to make better choices). Purchase interventions are most effective when they can minimise disruption (e.g. providing a tasty and more affordable meat alternative), sell a compelling benefit (e.g. reduced cost or improved taste), maximise awareness (e.g. putting vegetarian options at the top of menus), and help to shift norms (prevent plant-based foods from being seen as a fringe behaviour). Food industries taking responsibility for sustainability is also important with charity and community collaborations proving highly effective.
Wastage – “losing less”
One of the “hotspots” or “big hits” identified by Mason and Lang is food waste. One-third of global food production is lost or wasted, which accounts for 28% of the world’s agricultural land area, and around $940 billion in cost. Reducing waste provides a major opportunity to make food more sustainable and economically efficient. Whilst wastage in low-income countries tend to be post-harvest waste, in developed countries, consumer and foodservice waste is highest.
The British charity WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) have made some of the following recommendations towards reducing preventing consumer wastage:
- Choosing correct date labelling, using ‘best before’ when possible
- Removing ‘sell by and ‘display until’ dates
- Extending shelf life (provided food quality and safety are not compromised)
- Providing clear storage guidance
- Clear advice on foods which can be frozen at home
- Providing portioning information on packaging
- Smaller pack sizes where products are wasted in high volume, e.g. bread loaves. If not appropriate, then providing guidance on optimising storage and freezing.
Packaging is also another critical aspect of food production, keeping food safe and thus preventing wastage. Packaging also facilitates efficient communication throughout the supply chain by transforming information. The type, weight and volume of packaging determine the transport efficiency, with more packaging increasing the transport volume, and thus emissions released. Trade-offs thus occur between having enough packaging to prevent damage and wastage, but not so much that high emissions are generated from the production and transport of the packaging.
It seems counter-intuitive to think that packaging may actually support sustainable food systems. Especially when confronted with reports such as marine plastic pollution having increased by tenfold since 1980. Ingested microplastics block the digestive tracts of marine creatures, reducing their urge to eat and changing feeding behaviour. This widespread contamination also means many fish and shellfish have ingested microplastics, with evidence for the toxicity of these plastics now emerging. The human consumption of seafood will likely now include the consumption of plastics, with the study on their effects to human health ongoing.
Yet again we see the complexities surrounding sustainable food systems – the considerations around packaging and its potential to reduce waste serve to highlight the intricacies and interdependencies.
Interventions will need to surpass a range of complex barriers, including, better agricultural practices, more transparent food markets, reduced food loss and wastage, and changes to consumer behaviour. This piece has started to consider those latter two points. Key players must begin to mobilise and deliver this joint vision and we can all play our part in creating incremental change.
“We are all culpable but, it has to be said, through no fault of our own.
It is only in the last few decades that we have come to understand that every one of us has been born into a human world that was always inherently unsustainable. But now that we do know this, we have a choice to make. We could carry on living our happy lives, raising our families, busying ourselves with the honest pursuits of the modern society that we have built, whilst choosing to disregard the disaster waiting on our doorstep.
Or we could change.”
– Sir David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. My Witness Statement…
To bring about this change, what steps could your catering team start to implement? Some of these may be initiatives you already have underway or are planning for the new academic year…
- Education about healthy and sustainable eating, including where food comes from. This can help create healthier eating habits for life, as well as dispelling myths about what constitutes sustainable eating, and is an important first step
- Greater transparency, traceability and provision of information through solutions which provide environmental impact assessments of ingredients and recipes
- Menu planning to design a menu that is more sustainable and agile, that is appealing whilst also meeting nutritional requirements. From the language to the layout, menu planning can make sustainable and plant-based food choices more exciting. Sometimes the simplest things can be the most impactful – i.e. putting the most sustainable options first on the menu (usually meat would be top)
- Taste is a key element, as is taste perception. A dietitian and / or procurement partner can facilitate the provision of samples, to encourage exposure to different foods and therefore develop greater levels and ranges of ‘acceptability’ amongst your consumers
- Food waste can be managed by considering ways the food is stored and prepared and served. See ‘Wastage’ above for other practical steps. Exploring ways to minimise waste may also include encouraging regular feedback about both your processes and the popularity of your dishes, portion sizes etc.
- Sustainability group creation, led by your consumers is a great way to get feedback, understand what issues matter to them and to involve them in the solution. This may include the conception of the next point…
- Sustainable food policy, written to make sure everyone is part of the approach and communicated thereafter
- Meat free days and education around how to reduce meat consumption is important, with red and processed meat having the single greatest environmental impact of any food. Meat free days can be done in exciting and innovative ways. There can be concerns around protein intakes and iron, associated with this, but a dietitian can advise. Again, this comes back to menu planning.
- K.Richardson, Professor at the University of Copenhagen: https://www.coursera.org/learn/transformation-global-food-system
- Developing Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, Meek, K. 2020.
- Food Insight, Food Trends to Watch in 2020, in Food Insight. 2020: foodinsight.org
- Sustainable Diets ‘How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System’ Mason, P. and T. Lang, 2017.
- Agriculture at a crossroads, findings and recommendations for future farming, 2020.
- Smithers, R., Third of Britons have stopped or reduced eating meat – Report. The Guardian, 2018.
- Lloyds Register, UK Food Trends: A Snapshot in Time, 2019.
- World Health Organization, Global and regional food consumption patterns and trends.WHO Technical Report Series, 2009.
- Rust, N.A., et al., How to transition to reduced-meat diets that benefit people and the planet.Science of the Total Environment, 2020.
- Willett, W., et al., Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.The Lancet, 2019.
- Stoll-Kleemann, S. and T. O’Riordan, The sustainability challenges of our meat and dairy diets.Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 2015.
- Poore, J. and T. Nemecek, Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, 2018.
- Bongaarts, J., IPBES, 2019. Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science‐Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Population and Development Review, 2019.
- Royte, E. and R. Olson, We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life–What About Us. Nat Geo, 2018.
- Smith, M., et al., Microplastics in seafood and the implications for human health. Current environmental health reports, 2018.