LEAP Conference 2020 - Whole system change: meat in the context of diet and the environment

LEAP Conference 2019

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.

In terms of dietary change to greater sustainability, we have tended to focus on the wrong factors. For example, in replacing meat most people worry about protein, yet most people consume double the amount of protein required and could easily get enough protein by replacing meat with vegetables. A bigger concern is sufficient micronutrients, such as iron. We also forget to focus on the absence of nutrients in our diet, such as fibre, which could be solved by eating more cereal fibre. 

To achieve change we must first understand that there is not one start point but many. People’s diets are healthy, unhealthy, environmentally friendly, unsustainable, and many combinations thereof, so to bring whole populations towards both healthy and sustainable will require multiple approaches. Our choice of branding will be crucial too. Professor MacDiarmid discussed research suggesting that the term ‘part-time carnivore’ is more appealing to many men than the term ‘flexitarian’. 

Like Dimbleby she believes that past approaches have been misfocused. Thinking about food security has been a misdirection also: “Food security has been about producing as much food as possible, so people would not be hungry, yet millions are nutrition deficient. We should think instead about nutrition security” she concluded and there is no better moment to do so than now as we recover from the pandemic and head towards Brexit.

During the day there were also online poster presentations and panel discussions that took deeper dives into the impacts of food choices on planetary health, attitudes to meat reduction, and on health, nutrition, food systems and more... 

To watch any of the sessions again you will need to register on the conference platform. Please contact LEAP in order to do so.