Great British sustainable food can help slash emissions
Over the past two years, Britain’s supply chains have come under strain from multiple pressures, and we have also come to question the health and environmental credentials of our food - with the latter under the spotlight as world leaders gather at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
The government’s response to the independent National Food Strategy review must address these challenges to improve access to sustainably produced, nutritious food.
The unpalatable truth is that our current food system does not deliver good outcomes for our health or the environment. Poor diets contribute to around 64,000 deaths every year in England and cost the UK economy an estimated £74 billion.
At the same time, the food system accounts for a fifth of domestic emissions and has contributed to the decline in wildlife, water quality and soil health. In return, climate change threatens to cause crop failures in the future and nature loss makes our land less productive.
This is a system failure and not the fault of individual farmers or consumers. As the food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby, who was tasked with leading the review, makes clear, those of us in Parliament and my colleagues in government now have the opportunity to change course to reduce our impact on the environment, improve public health, food security, and create new opportunities for British producers.
One such quadruple win is bolstering our production and consumption of fruit, vegetables, beans and pulses by making use of the next generation of indoor growing systems, and by shifting to so-called “regenerative farming”. This will boost public health, create agricultural jobs, reduce our environmental footprint, and make us less dependent on international supply chains.
Britain can either lead the way in novel foods or allow these jobs and investments to go abroad
The strategy also urges the UK to tap into the growing market for new types of protein, including plant-based alternatives and fermentation-made and cultivated meat and dairy – spurring innovation and bringing down costs for the public. These alternative proteins take up relatively little land and can be less emissions intensive - leaving more space for iconic British wildlife and contributing to our green jobs revolution.
Not all consumers will choose these options, and that’s ok. But the government should not stand in the way of new technologies. Britain can either lead the way in novel foods or allow these jobs and investments to go abroad. Already, the UK buys a third of all plant-based alternatives sold in Europe. Developing and manufacturing alternative proteins at home rather than importing them would create 10,000 factory jobs and 6,500 jobs in farming, according to Dimbleby.
Further consumer-friendly ideas put forward by Dimbleby include, improving the sustainability of the food provided in our schools and hospitals, and enabling the public sector to source more local produce. In addition, he calls for the creation of a consistently applied labelling system - to tell us how sustainable those avocados on the shelf really are.
But how can we support our farmers as we transition to a food system that is Net-Zero and restores our green and pleasant land? Many farmers are already excellent stewards of our environment and have been successful in reducing artificial fertilisers and pesticides, while encouraging more wildlife on their land, but are struggling to turn a profit.
Until now, they have not been properly rewarded for their contribution to tackling climate change or restoring nature. But our new Environmental Land Management scheme – which is replacing the EU’s disastrous Common Agriculture Policy – will pay farmers for environmental improvements on the farm, as well as land use changes, such as woodland creation and peatland restoration. We must press on with the roll out of these new payments to provide certainty for farmers and deliver on our environmental ambitions.
In addition, to ensure our farmers are not undercut by foreign foods produced to lower standards, the Dimbleby review echoes the Trade and Agriculture Commission in calling for the government to develop a set of core standards which imports must meet to avoid tariffs.
The sum of the interventions highlighted here would make going green easier and cheaper for the Great British public, rather than penalising people for their existing habits. It would also create financial opportunities for British farmers to produce nutritious food and deliver environmental improvements.
Dimbleby’s strategy offers a blueprint for change that I hope the government will seriously consider when it publishes its response in January. With our newfound freedoms post-Brexit and the opportunity to build back better from the pandemic, the transition to a healthier, greener and more resilient food economy is within reach. So close, in fact, you can almost taste it.
Andrew Selous is the Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire and a member of the Conservative Environment Network.
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