Freelance nutrition writer Ursula Arens wonders why our food systems aren’t on the menu at COP 26

Much thought has been given to the foods offered to delegates attending the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. Menus are ‘climate friendly’ and 80 per cent of foods will be sourced from Scotland. Each menu item will also have a declaration of carbon footprint, helping to steer towards more sustainable dietary choices. Yet with all the attention to menus, a commitment to providing consumer guidance on more sustainable dietary choice is not on the agenda.

The UK government report Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener contains recommendations to reduce emissions from agriculture, such as supporting research into feed supplements to reduce methane belching from cattle. The report also supports funding for the development of meat alternative products. But so far all of this appears lacking at COP26.

Estimates are that about one third of global greenhouse gases are linked to food and drink. Reductions to warming and other damages to the environment need changes on both the push and pull sides of our food systems: changes to agricultural practices and priorities, and changes to support consumer awareness and better choices.

There have been many reports describing food policy options:

  • Perhaps most familiar to consumers and health professionals in the UK is the Eatwell Guide (2016), which sets out government guidance illustrating the balance of healthier and more sustainable foods
  • The British Dietetic Association (BDA) issued a report, One Blue Dot, to provide guidance on environmentally sustainable diets to the dietetic profession (2018)
  • The EAT Lancet Commission produced a very comprehensive and detailed description of healthy diets from sustainable food systems (2019)
  • Most recently, proposals for a UK National Food Strategy were published (July, 2021). The recommendations were that UK diets should shift to include 30 per cent more fruit and vegetables and 30 percent less meat, and that public sector meals including schools and hospitals should reflect healthy and sustainable diets

There have been declines in intakes of red meat in the last decade, and a poll of 22,000 people by the research agency Demos (September, 2021), reported that more than 90 per cent favoured reducing meat and dairy as a climate change strategy. Many people are aware of healthy and sustainable diet messages. But often practicalities of food choices bend to the essential features of price, taste, convenience, and pleasure.

Where can health and nutrition professionals fit in?
Vegan advocates clash with food traditionalists, and health and nutrition professionals are needed to cool aspects of hot debates on food systems shifts needed to support health and environmental challenges. Food choices are more than nutrient choices; telling is less effective than persuading or nudging. Understanding attitudes around consumer choices and behaviours can better open doors to healthier behaviours. And food manufacturers and retailers need nutrition and behaviour change experts as core members of their sustainable strategy teams to guide policies and communications towards helping consumer make better choices.

MyNutriWeb has organised virtual events post-COP26 presenting expert ideas for changing behaviours towards healthy and sustainable diets.

  • What strategies can bring typical diets closer to environmental and health targets?
  • Are nudges enough? Or are more forceful methods of persuasion needed?
  • Will the development of targeted information via apps and eco-labels support better choices?
  • Are there tried and tested interventions that help people make significant dietary shifts? Experts will share insights and offer guidance.

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