The biggest waste in our UK food system is the land used to feed livestock, argued Henry Dimbleby, in the opening plenary of this year’s LEAP conference. The conference took place online, like most events this year because of COVID-19, and attracted speakers and participants from around the world.
Dimbleby, who is leading the National Food Strategy for England, part one of which was published in summer 2020, made the case that we have deliberately pushed the food system for 75 years to produce more food, more cheaply, and this has left us with a systemic challenge in the face of the current pandemic and with BREXIT around the corner.
Part two of the Strategy will be published in 2021, though: “It is not realistic to publish a plan next year that will change things overnight. We are constantly learning about how the food system has gone wrong and how we can put it right,” he says.
“Production & consumption are not always connected, we could eat healthily and trash the environment, and vice versa. But there are areas of crossover and meat is clearly one of them.”
As far as livestock is concerned, he believes we need to; free up farmland for alternative uses and carbon sequestration; to increase the amount of carbon in soil and; reduce emissions in ruminant meat both in emissions per animal and through a reduction in consumption.
This reduction in consumption was addressed by Professor Jenny MacDiarmid of the Rowett Institute at the University of Aberdeen in her closing plenary. She contends that moving from meat-based to plant-based is more complex than we may think; it's not just about taking meat off the plate, we will need to change our whole approach to what - and how - we prepare, cook and eat. Without careful thought, we will be faced with unintended consequences for health and/or environment.
For example, sugary drinks may not seem bad in terms of greenhouse gas emissions but they certainly are not good for our health. Likewise, taking healthy guidelines and assuming they will be sustainable does not add up, again leaving us encouraging people to eat more fish that is then sourced from unsustainable fisheries or environmentally damaging aquaculture, or calls to eat more vegetables lead to them being grown in water stressed areas.