Sustainable food habits must be reinforced at a policy level.
The UN climate talks, meant to take place in Glasgow this month, should have been a milestone for global climate action, with growing recognition of the role of food and agriculture in adaptation and mitigation.
The COP26 meeting may be postponed just as the importance of sustainable food systems finally entered mainstream environmental dialogues, but the world cannot afford now to lose momentum towards resetting the food system to meet human needs within planetary boundaries.
With just 10 years to deliver the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and 30 years to bring emissions down to net zero, food systems are the common factor for improving human health, biodiversity, climate change and equality, and there is no time to waste.
According to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the entire agri-food system contributes up to a third of greenhouse gas emissions, offering as yet unexploited potential for mitigating the effects of climate change.
Put simply, the best foods for people are also often the best foods for the planet. The most nutritional foods provide the best value and return on investment from the resources and global commons needed to produce them, making them more sustainable.
As we look ahead to the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, it is clear that consumers must be encouraged to propel food systems towards greater sustainability by adopting healthier diets and sustainable food habits.
In the years leading up to global deadlines for climate action, the public and private sector can drive this firstly by improving food provisions and education in public places like schools, universities and office canteens.
Growing evidence suggests that educating students and workers about the sustainability of their plate, and providing healthier, greener options can have a measurable impact on emissions and resource use.
For example, preliminary results from the SU-EATABLE LIFE project, an EU-funded social experiment in the UK and Italy, found better information and meal options in canteens lowered the CO2 equivalent emissions of each meal by half a kilogram and reduced the water footprint by 390 litres.
The experiment first raised awareness of sustainability in food systems through apps, banners and posters, and then provided a daily sustainable meal choice. Such an approach has the potential to reach many more consumers because it does not rely on individuals changing their behaviour in their own home.
Secondly, such principles of sustainable food habits must be reinforced at a policy level.
European policymakers should develop and implement public procurement guidelines for food and catering in public venues like schools and offices in the same way there are guidelines for other goods and services.
Setting out standards and expectations at the highest level can unlock broader social behaviour changes, helping to mainstream sustainable diets in public settings.
Finally, with a growing number of Europeans eating out before the pandemic, chefs are becoming the custodians of our diets, which means sustainable food habits are often in their hands.
European countries must invest more in training, education and technology for chefs to equip them with the skills and knowledge needed to deliver sustainable diets in canteens, cafes and restaurants.
The world may not have the chance to unite for climate action this year, but we have a growing number of opportunities to continue to discuss how to improve the food system, from next month’s “Resetting the Food System from Farm to Fork” event to the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021.
This is a conversation we must continue to have, for our diets, for our health and for our planet.
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