Call to action on food

On the hottest day of this record-breaking summer of 2016, a large group of LCON members and supporters met to hear food policy expert Professor Tim Lang discuss the nature of sustainable food. In a fascinating talk, Professor Lang called on LCON and similar groups to use their local knowledge and contacts to change food habits and policy at local level. You can see a more detailed account of Professor Lang’s views on food in a video for the Food Systems Academy; or read the transcript of the video. There’s a Storify chain of tweets by one of our committee members, for those who like that kind of thing – and our strictly informal non-expert response to the talk follows.

A fundamental aspect of Tim’s message was about the need to look at food and sustainability in the round, not to confine our attention to the implications for climate change. Food is part of a hugely complex system involving questions of biodiversity, water, diet, inequality and land use, as well as carbon. As a low carbon group, our focus is carbon and that is fine, but we need to be aware of this much more complex context. See for example this 2014 talk to the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee by food expert Kate Clancy.

We heard about slow and difficult attempts to research and communicate the nature of a sustainable diet. Like national ‘healthy eating’ guidelines, these have been very hard to establish in most countries, with food policy after World War Two focusing on producing more and more food, the growth of ‘non-food’ food (wasteful, unhealthy) and the often unhelpful influence of food companies on governments around the world. Sweden set the benchmark by producing a set of dietary guidelines in 2009 which combined health and sustainability, but this was not adopted by the European Union because of concerns that the focus on local food would undermine the principle of free movement.

So what is a sustainable diet? The good news is that research suggests that what is good for the natural ecosystem is also good for human health: the simplest single step with the biggest impact is to cut out or reduce meat and dairy. There are questions about which meat might be lower carbon, but the easiest approach is to give up meat and dairy altogether. Other aspects of a sustainable diet are to eat more vegetables, cut waste, eat less, and eat seasonably.

Local education and health authorities can be very influential towards changing people’s eating habits, and local groups like LCON can be very influential (apparently!) in getting local authorities to act. If all school meals in Oxfordshire used locally-produced seasonal food and all hospitals gave their patients a sustainable diet, that would have a big impact on changing habits, as well as shifting local production and distributions systems to support such big purchasers. Should LCON campaign for policy changes in our area? What do you think? Let us know and, if you have 5 minutes, complete our survey.

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