“Sustainable Diets for all: academic pie-in-the-sky or ecological public health inevitability?”
Professor Tim Lang, Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London
Friday 1 December 2017
The IFSTAL public lecture is an annual event which showcases a topic of significance to the food system. It brings in experts to provide a bespoke lecture which is transmitted via video link simultaneously across our partner sites. This year the public lecture took place at SOAS in London with respondents and discussants in each of the other IFSTAL institutions (Warwick, Oxford, and Reading).
Addressing an audience of over 170 people interested in food systems, Professor Tim Lang presented his work on sustainable diets. What is meant by a sustainable diet and how do we achieve one were the key areas explored by this lecture. First, an invigorating trip down memory lane, reminding us that whilst this story is an old one indeed, the narrative is still being constructed. As we continue to debate with Malthus on the carrying capacity of the land on which we live and sustain ourselves, it is clear that after the intensification of agriculture during the twentieth century almost proved him wrong, we now enter an era of uncertainty in the twenty first century. The question is not how much food we can produce but how can we get it to those who need it and how to do it without environmental or political collapse. The maldistribution of food is not only endemic to the global population but land use for food is also suffering from distribution issues. Increasingly land is given over to animal feed, so much so that we find ourselves in direct competition with poultry for our limited cropland.
Second, we consider the evidence. What we know is that:
- Modern diets are not sustainable.
- WWF has made food one of their top issues.
- There are multiple and interacting criteria to deal with for example, animals and greenhouse gases.
- We continually neglect the issue of virtual water in our policies.
- Key players cannot agree on what is the issue nor how to solve it.
It is clear that we cannot deal with this complex food problem in isolation; we have to connect it in policy, in politics and in our academic minds and research to that which it is intrinsically connected to: the economy, the environment, our social values, our health, and our structures of governance.
So what makes a good policy which takes account of these complex interactions? Many, it seems, cannot get it right, particularly at the national level. For example the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) developed the Sustainable Shopping Basket: a guide to better shopping (2003-2014), but it was not acted on, Sweden’s National Food Administration (NFA) was made to withdraw its Environmentally Effective Food Choices (2009) because it contravened the principles of free movement of goods in the EU, and the meat lobby in the USA continue to reject scientific advice to incorporate sustainability into the dietary Guidelines despite the impact of meat production and consumption on the environment and health. Yet, there are examples of ‘vibrancy’ at the local level such as the Sustainable Food Cities Movement and the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact 2015. Professor Lang argues that crucially, a good food policy is one that also engages with culture, good food policy is one that is so robust it survives political change. In this, he cites a beautifully simple example of a ‘good’ food policy which supports sustainable diets from Brazil, where people are advised “to eat in company wherever possible and be critical of the commercial advertisement of food”.
Pie in the sky? Well, at the moment, it seems so, unless we can find a way of working across the entire system. This is not happening enough at the global or even national levels. We have to look at all angles of the food system and from all perspectives, we have to scale-up local movements to create systemic change. Lang argues that, “sustainable diets are fast becoming a test case for whether the world’s policy-makers take a food systems approach seriously”.
For the ‘IFSTALers’ and others present in person or remotely, this was a rousing call to action, inspiring discussion and debate among our multi-disciplinary students and staff well into the evening. As one student noted:
“It was an inspirational call to action! But a double-edged sword – on the one hand it’s completely overwhelming the scale of the food systems problem we’re facing, but on the other hand it’s great to be able to have confidence that there is a community trying to provide coherent answers” Lara Killick LSHTM
Blog by Annabel de Frece and Rebecca Wells, IFSTAL Education Coordinators, City, University of London.