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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

In an event hosted by Cambridge Global Food Security on 24 Oct 2017, a panel including Dr Jean Adams, Dr Chris Kaplonski, and PhD researchers Emma Garnett and Charlotte Payne discussed whether healthy, sustainable food for all is really possible. Catherine Jones, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, blogs on the event.

1. Meat is stopping our diets from being sustainable

Firstly, Emma Garnett provided an insightful discussion into how our meat consumption in the UK is preventing our diet from being more sustainable, if we are thinking about sustainability in terms of being able to maintain our diet how it is now without being detrimental to the environment. The annual meal consumption per person in the UK is just over 80kg per year. This is about the same as South America, and a lot less than North America – but a lot higher than the rest of the world. Emma explained how food miles aren’t as important as what we eat; the type of food is much more harmful to the environment than where it is sourced from. So, importing grains, fruit and vegetables from abroad, though producing food miles, does not impact the environment to the same extent as meat. Meat takes up a lot of natural resources and land to produce a small amount, and then has a harmful effect due to the gases produced. Pork and chicken are not as damaging as beef and lamb; in particular, beef produces high levels of methane, a gas twenty times worse for climate change than carbon dioxide. It is also estimated that 80% of Amazonian deforestation is driven by pasture for beef. Overall, the take home message was that plant based foods are realistically the most sustainable food source.

2. Cultural inertia is stopping our diets from being sustainable, as explained through the useful example of eating insects

Charlotte Payne commented on the recent interest in alternative food sources that may be more sustainable than the high consumption of meat our society depends on. Humans are able to digest insects, which are a good source of protein. Recent research has largely focused on incorporating two kinds of insects; crickets and mealworms. Charlotte explained how we are not familiar with insects, or lots of other types of food that are sustainable, and swapping meat and two veg for a meal including some crickets (or beans, lentils etc.) seems daunting. This is a sign of cultural inertia in terms of thinking about adjusting our diets to be more sustainable. There is also a lack of adequate information in the public sphere about how to make our diets more sustainable, in particular the distributors of food are a culprit for preventing food becoming more sustainable. So, a cultural shift is needed – not necessarily towards eating insects, but toward seeing sustainability as desirable every day.

3. Beliefs on ethics come into contest with taste, and often lose, and this prevents our diets being sustainable

Dr Chris Kaplonski discussed how luxury products, such as wine, are particularly interesting to consider with regards to sustainability. He commented on how the role of expectation plays an important part of why we eat certain foods, and the physical sensations we associate with food and how important they are. As we expect food and drink to be a certain way, we often struggle to adjust to a change – he gave the example of sustainable wine tasting undrinkable to a fine wine expert, even though the expert knows it is much better for the environment. He discussed how the ugly fruit and vegetable movement is becoming increasingly popular, and this is helping us to address the huge amount of waste in food production and distribution – yet it is not enough. If we are to become more sustainable, we do need to consider taste and texture too, to get everyone on board.

4. Affordability, availability and advertising prevent our diets from being sustainable

Dr Jean Adams, a dietary public health researcher, explained how sustainable diets tend to be healthier, mainly as they involve eating more fruit and vegetables, and as less meat is consumed, tend to be lower in fat content. The problem of why our diets are not more sustainable, and therefore healthy too, is three-fold: affordability, availability, and advertising. Firstly, although some sustainable foods such as pulses are cheap, you need time and energy to cook therefore eat well on a budget. Buying healthy food that requires less preparation is a lot more expensive. In terms of availability, less healthy foods are found in abundance, such as take-away places and fast-food chains. It is easy to pick up ready-made food rather than cook it, and these options are also cognitively available due to constant exposure to the sights and smells of unhealthy food, so people may end up craving unhealthy food that they then have easy access to. Lastly, most advertising in the UK is for unhealthy foods, encouraging buyers to sway toward less healthy, but more appealing, food choices. These three factors all contribute to a less sustainable diet.

To conclude, the talks all explained how dietary choices are linked with nutritional status and health status, which is intertwined with nutrient qualities, food production and food environments; so sustainability is part of a large, complex picture, and everyone has a part to play in making our diet more sustainable.


Words by Catherine Jones.

This was a public event, hosted by the Cambridge Global Food Security Initiative as part of the University's Festival of Ideas 2017.