Food and Behaviour Research

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Want some holiday reading? Try the National Food Strategy plan. - Michelle's blog

Michelle Berridale Johnson

Food strategy

If you are even remotely interested in your fellow citizens’ health, our children’s diet, the state of our farming industry, biodiversity, climate change – or even systems analysis – you will find it extremely interesting.


No – I am not joking. If you are even remotely interested in your fellow citizens’ health, our children’s diet, the state of our farming industry, biodiversity, climate change – or even systems analysis – you will find it extremely interesting. And, if you believe that the government will take it all on board and implement their suggestions, rather encouraging. Unfortunately I fear that is a very big ‘if’.

To encourage you. It is written engagingly and although heavily referenced and laced with diagrams and charts, it is so ‘un-dry’ that I polished off a hundred pages at the first sitting.
It is also extremely easy to access either as a download or online. It will give you something to read while you are waiting in the three hour queue at the airport trying to get back into the country after your holiday – before you start your quarantine…
The plan falls into two parts – an analysis of why we are where we are now and the panel’s recommendations as to how we can put matters right. So to pull out just a few very random headline stats, facts and comments which I hope may persuade you to read on.
Systems thinking and the food industry
Systems thinking, the feedback loop and systems traps – so often caused by a failure to define one’s goals accurately. (If you read nothing else, do read this chapter in full – I found it fascinating.)
Emissions and global warming
  • The food system is responsible for 25–30% of global emissions: air travel only contributes 3.5%.
  • Three man-made greenhouse gases account for the bulk of the warming associated with climate change: Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), and Nitrous Oxide (N2O). The food system is the only field of human activity that emits all three.
  • The two greatest emiters of  methane are rice (fermenting bacteria in the wet soil of rice paddies) and ruminants (cows and sheep).
  • The methane produced by ruminants is estimated to have caused a third of total global warming since the industrial revolution.
  • Around 50% of Earth’s habitable land is now used for agriculture.
  • 77% of the world’s farmland (and 85% of the farmland in the UK) is used to graze animals or to produce crops to feed to animals.
  • However, these animals only provide 32% of our total calorie intake while the remaining 15% of that farmland (in the UK) grows crops which provide 68% of our calorie intake.
  • The combined weight of animals bred for food is now 10 times the combined weight of all wild mammals and birds put together.
  • The green revolution was miraculous in terms of feeding the world but a disaster in terms of the natural world and the creation of carbon emissions.
  • Since 1930, we have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, half our ancient woodland, 56% of our heathland, and 90% of our lowland ponds.
  • As wheat yields in the UK doubled from 1970 to today, the number of farmland birds decreased by 54%. The UK now sits in last place on the European farmland bird index.
  • Farming uses 70% of the fresh water on earth.
  • Water pollution is so bad in the UK that only 16% of surface and ground water meets the criteria for ‘good chemical status’.
The oceans
  • Between 1970 and 2012, global marine biodiversity is estimated to have fallen by 49%.
  • Since the 1890s, when fossil-fuel powered bottom trawling began, cod landings have declined by 87%, hake by 95% and halibut by 99.8%.
  • To put this in perspective, in the 1830s small sailing vessels around the Dogger Bank could catch a tonne of halibut per day. Today, all fishing across the entire Dogger Bank lands less than two tonnes of halibut a year.
Diversity and the invisibility of nature 
  • It is impossible, according to American biologist Edward O. Wilson, to put a true ‘value’ on genetic diversity because we cannot know its worth to future generations. When will you discover that what you thought was just a pretty flower produces alkaloids which can cure deadly cancers? (See the Catharanthus Roseus).
  • Currently, while 300,000 species of plant have edible parts, just 20 species account for 90% of the world’s food, and three – wheat, maize and rice – supply more than half. To be so heavily reliant on a tiny handful of crops puts humanity in a precarious position. Genetic diversity could help future-proof the food system.
  • Not only do our economic systems treat natural resources as if they were both costless and infinite they actively encourage the destruction of nature.
  • Every year, $500 billion-worth of Government subsidies are spent globally on supporting practises – intensive agriculture, fisheries, fossil fuel mining and fertiliser manufacture – that destroy nature. (See The Economics of Diversity by economist Partha Dasgupta.
  • Nearly 3 in 10 of our over-45 population are clinically obese.
  • The government spends an estimated £18 billion – 8% of all government healthcare expenditure – on conditions related to high BMI (Body Mass Index) every year.
  • The OECD estimates that the combined cost of conditions related to high BMI, in lost workforce productivity, reduction in life expectancy and NHS funds, is £74 billion every year. This is equivalent to cutting the UK’s GDP by 3.4%. To cover these costs, each person in the United Kingdom pays an additional £409 in taxes per year.
  • One in three of over 45 year olds has either diabetes or a heart condition.
  • There has been a 338% increase in children’s A&E admissions caused by food allergies since 1998.
Healthy versus unhealthy food
  • The average Brit consumes five times the volume of crisps that they did in 1972. We eat 1.5 times the amount of breakfast cereal that we did in 1970 (and breakfast cereals are now higher in sugar.)
  • Children from the least well-off 20% of families consume around 29% less fruits and vegetables, 75% less oily fish, and 17% less fibre per day than children from the most well off 20%.
  • Children in the poorest areas of England are both fatter and significantly shorter than those in the richest areas at age 10–11.
  • 85% of the manufactured food products sold in the UK are deemed to be so unhealthy they are unsuitable for marketing to children.
  • Those on low incomes want to eat more healthily and know how to but are prevented from doing so by the cost and unavailability of healthy foods.
  • Ingredients in highly processed foods can disrupt the hormonal reactions which should trigger feelings of satiety and prevent us eating too much.
  • In low income localities junk food is everywhere but fresh ingredients are harder to find. Roughly 3.3 million people cannot reach any food stores selling raw ingredients within 15 minutes by public transport. 40% of the lowest income households lack access to a car – almost twice as many as the national average.
  • It’s not just the consumer who is trapped in this cycle: food companies are too. The food and drink industry would be happy to sell healthier food but they want a level playing field that could only be created by government regulation – of the sort that has proved so successful in reducing the amount  of sugar in soft drinks. (See the chapter on systems feedback and systems traps.)
The meat issue
A fascinating subject with some exciting possible solutions. As exciting as are several of the other solutions that the panel suggest – land sparing and land sharing, cooperatives, regenerative farming, reducing waste.
There is, obviously, a great deal more – 164 pages in fact – but don’t let that put you off. You can take it in small chunks and really do not need to read it all. Although you might want to check out their recommendations from P.144 onwards
1.Escape the junk food cycle and protect the NHS 
  • Introduce a Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax. Use some of the revenue to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income families.
  • Introduce mandatory reporting for large food companies.
  • Launch a new “Eat and Learn” initiative for schools.
2. Reduce diet-related inequality
  • Extend eligibility for free school meals.
  • Fund the Holiday Activities and Food programme for the next three years.
  • Expand the Healthy Start scheme.
  • Trial a “Community Eatwell” Programme, supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets.
3. Make the best use of our land
  • Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use.
  • Create a Rural Land Use Framework based on the three compartment model.
  • Define minimum standards for trade, and a mechanism for protecting them.
4. Create a long-term shift in our food culture
  • Invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system.
  • Create a National Food System Data programme.
  • Strengthen Government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food.
  • Set clear targets and bring in legislation for long-term change.