The one-sentence summary
The food system is making us sick and destroying our environment, so we need to change it.
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- The author was co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain, a government adviser and author of the National Food Strategy. He believes that the food system that feeds us so efficiently is leading us to disaster and suggests what can be done about it.
- The food system is one of the most productive and destructive industries on Earth. Globally, we now produce 50% more calories than we need to feed ourselves. At the same time, diet-related disease has become the biggest cause of avoidable illness and death in the developed world.
- Even if it didn’t make us ill, the food system would still be life-threatening. It is the biggest cause of deforestation, drought, water pollution and biodiversity collapse and the second biggest cause of climate change, after the fuel industry.
- We need to change the way people and politicians see the food system; to get beyond the guff of the daily news cycle and examine how the machinery of production and consumption really works.
- Over 80% of processed food sold in the UK is unhealthy, as defined by the World Health Organization deeming them unsuitable to market to children.
- Our current food system is riddled with system traps, which include policy resistance, the tragedy of the commons (when a finite resource is accessible to everyone and they take as much out as possible before it runs out), drift to low performance, shifting the burden to the intervenor, rule-beating, and seeking the wrong goal.
- Since 1930 we have lost 97% of our wildflowers, half our ancient woodland, 56% of our heathland and 90% of our lowland ponds.
- Modern food production has trapped us in a junk food cycle. Humanity worked out how to grow food to avoid mass starvation, and in the process prioritises quantity over quality. We have changed our diet to match this system, and this diet is now making both us and the planet ill.
- Almost one in three adults in the UK are obese or severely obese. This ‘obesity epidemic’ hasn’t been a sudden disaster – more of a slow-moving landslide.
- No matter how bad the headlines get, the British public and political class can’t seem to muster an appropriate level of fear. Instead, we feel boredom, statistical snow-blindness, and a kind of instinctive recoil to what we believe to be ‘common sense’ solutions.
- Eating well is much harder if you are poor. The way we eat in Britain is one of the clearest markers of inequality. Children in the poorest areas are fatter and shorter – a poor combination of overweight and undernourished. The way we eat is imperilling the way we eat.
- There is no government department in the UK that has any idea, or has even been tasked to find out, what the true costs of food production are. This is because what economists call ‘negative externalities’ such as human capital (health, education and skills of the population) and natural capital (the natural resources used), are not measured. There is therefore a hidden cost of food that is not factored into the price at the till. The answer in the UK is £40-90 billion, or a doubling in the average cost of a food shopping bill.
- Even worse, a quarter of all the food grown in the UK never makes it into the shops. The main reason for this is that 4 supermarkets control 66% of the UK groceries market. Farmers overproduce to allow for changing demand and throw the rest away. This squandered harvest generates 8-10% of global greenhouse emissions, so, if uneaten food were a country, it would be the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China.
- This system is supported by the State to the tune of £3.4bn every year. This is mainly because farmers are essential for food security. But is it a suitable price to pay? The services we require from farmers are changing fast as the environmental crisis gathers pace.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
- After all this analysis the author offers a 15-point action plan for changing the food system in order to make us well instead of sick, be resilient enough to withstand global shocks, help to restore nature and halt climate change so that we hand on a healthier planet to our children, and meet the standards the public expect on health, environment and animal welfare.
WHAT YOU HAVE TO WATCH
- Ironically, the status update on these recommendations for the National Food Strategy shows that many have not been enacted, and in some cases, such as restricting the promotion and advertising of junk food, especially to children, the government has reneged on its promise.