Digesting diet and health: the challenges of eating well

Diet-related health problems are rarely out of the news. That’s because so many illnesses and diseases are the result of poor diet. There’s no shortage of suggestions for improving our diet, and for educating all of us on the benefits of eating well.

Policymakers are also concerned about this issue. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS has been under greater pressure than ever, and government has been keen to address diet-related health problems.  

Examples of this include the most recent legislation to add calorie labelling to  restaurants and takeaways, which has been controversial. The new rules for England make it a legal requirement for large businesses with more than 250 employees, including cafes, restaurants and takeaways, to display calorie information of non-prepacked food and soft drinks.  The Scottish Government is consulting on similar proposals.

Sugar and salt taxes

Another example of regulations directed towards diet-related health problems would be taxes on sugar and salt in foods. There have been suggestions to either tax all foods based on their salt content, or specific foods which are classed as “high” in salt.

A sugar tax – the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – was introduced in April 2018 by the UK Government. It was later reported that consumers had bought 10% less sugar through soft drinks, which will also have lowered risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

A report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2021, looked at the impacts a tax on added sugar and salt could have on purchases of food both at home and out of the home in the UK. The report found that a salt tax could potentially see a decrease in risks of coronary heart disease and strokes.

In addition, the study suggested a salt tax could reduce the number of NHS treatments for obesity-related conditions, resulting in  lower NHS costs. The report also indicated an increase in overall economic output due to a healthier workforce.

However, there may also be less welcome consequences. A ‘snack tax’ has been estimated to potentially add as much as £3.4billion a year to families’ shopping bills. Introducing such a tax during the current cost of living crisis would add greatly to the financial stresses being experienced by households across the country.

Counting the calories

Displaying the number of calories in meals on menus has long been proposed as a way to tackle obesity and health issues, as so many people are unaware of just what is in the food they order. Public opinion is extremely divided on this subject, with some being in favour of this extra measure to help them when eating out if they wish to make healthier choices.

However, adding calorie information to menus may have undesirable effects. 1.25 million people in the United Kingdom have an eating disorder, and the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have increased this number as more people struggle with mental illness and increased stress.

Beat, a UK-based eating disorder charity, has highlighted  that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds. In addition, pushing a “diet culture” could send the wrong messages about eating rather than embracing a more positive approach towards food.

A further  study by the British Medical Journal reported only a small decrease in calories purchased when trialling calorie labelling in three chain restaurants in the United States. The researchers also found that after one year, that reduction diminished.

Meeting in the middle?

Another suggestion that has been discussed is tackling health-related inequalities, and understanding why certain groups are more vulnerable to these issues than others. For example, the House of Commons library has reported that in England people living in the most deprived areas were 9% more likely to be overweight or obese than those in the least deprived areas. The briefing also reported that  children in the most deprived areas of England were twice as likely to be obese.. More education focusing on not only what is healthy food, but how to be healthy with fewer resources could help reduce such inequalities.

Final thoughts

From tooth decay and high blood pressure to cancer, eating disorders and mental ill health, there are significant health and wellbeing impacts resulting from unhealthy eating habits. These issues also have serious consequences for healthcare services.

As we’ve seen, legislation has already been introduced to tackle diet-related health problems. But it’s likely that government will have to consider further measures to ensure that the food that we eat is both good for individuals and for wider society.

Further reading: more on food and nutrition from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Looking back and beyond: The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021

brown sand near body of water during daytime

If 2020 was the year of the coronavirus, then 2021 was surely the year of the ‘coronacoaster’. From the highs of vaccine rollouts and loosening of social restrictions to the lows of fluctuating case numbers and a worrying new virus variation, we’ve all become unwilling passengers on what feels like an endless un-funfair ride.

But while the pandemic has never been far from our thoughts, it hasn’t taken over complete control of our lives. Research, evidence gathering, conferences and partnerships have continued in fields as diverse as education and housing, culture and the environment.  Which is why, this year’s reflection on The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021 focuses on some of the issues that we covered which looked beyond the pandemic.

Saving the planet

Until the emergence of Covid-19, many regarded climate change as the greatest threat facing humanity. That threat hasn’t gone away. Last summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the current state of the climate crisis, setting out the already devastating effects of climate change and warning of the deadly impacts, which will intensify as the planet gets hotter.

Throughout this year, our blog has focused on this issue, highlighting the dangers posed by climate change and the efforts to tackle the problem. In April, we looked at the monumental challenge of decarbonising the UK’s ageing housing stock, and highlighted a survey showing that two-thirds of housing associations have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer.

“However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.”

We returned to the issue this month, with an overview of plans by government and industry to make the transition from gas boilers to greener ways of heating our homes.

In November, the landmark COP26 climate conference took place in Glasgow, and while the major talking points included protection of the world’s forests and reducing dependency on fossil fuels, our blog focused on how important the circular economy is to tackling global warming:

“…if we were able to double the current 8.6% global circularity figure to achieve 17% circularity, that move alone would achieve the targets on global warming set out by the Paris COP meeting in 2015.”

The cultural imperative

From community murals to television drama, from open-air concerts to singers entertaining neighbours from their balconies, culture and the arts have played a vital role in diverting us from the grim news of the past two years. And although the arts have taken a severe hit during lockdowns, artists across the globe have continued to create and share their work.

In January, we highlighted some of the ways in which creative people have found new ways to express themselves and to support the wellbeing of others:

“Organisations and individuals have been doing a variety of work to reach those most in need such as projects creating new programmes or adapting existing work to reach people who are shielding or vulnerable in their homes, overwhelmingly addressing loneliness and isolation. One participant described their experience: “I found the process of drawing and painting both cathartic and healing at the most difficult time of my life.”

In April, our blog reported on efforts by cultural communities to break down some of the barriers to digital engagement. It’s estimated that seven million people in the UK don’t’ have digital access, while 11.7 million don’t have the digital skills needed to engage online. In an increasingly ‘digital by default’ society, those numbers are troubling.

Our blog post described some of the ways in which arts and cultural organisations are tackling digital exclusion:

“One project managed by Birmingham Museums involved taking digital kit out to care homes for digital arts sessions. This was not only great for wellbeing; it also showed how digital technologies can be adapted to connect with people within communities.”

Levelling up and the foundational economy

The economy is another recurring theme that we’ve highlighted in our blog. The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

In May we reported from a webinar looking at the scope for charities to get involved. On the face of it, the fact that much of the focus is on capital spending could be challenging for charities whose work involves tackling problems such as addiction or homelessness. However, our blog explained that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of obtaining levelling up funding:

“… a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.”

In February, we shone a light on the foundational economy, which provides some of the essential services of everyday life, such as food, retailing and distribution, education, health and welfare. While these services are vital, many of the workers providing them are among the lowest paid in society.  Our blog looked at the potential value of the foundational economy for the post-pandemic recovery:

“It has been widely agreed that a return to a business-as-usual approach following the pandemic is not the way forward, and that there needs to be a shift in economic policies in order to achieve a more socially and economically just society. Perhaps if such policy change is achieved, a more balanced economy that provides a good quality of life for all can eventually be realised.”

The issues of our times

From town centres to smart cities, from Scotland’s burgeoning space sector to Britain’s hard-pressed food system, throughout the year we’ve been raising awareness of important issues that concern or impact on public policy and practice.

But we haven’t ignored the ongoing public health emergency. In November, we reported from a webinar on some of the lessons from the pandemic and the future role of public health; in July we looked at the important work of health librarians during the pandemic; and in May our blog reported on the role of behavioural insights, data analytics and “nudge” techniques in public health, and in particular during the vaccine roll-outs.

Final thoughts

As we stand on the threshold of 2022, things look uncertain. But, as our blog posts have demonstrated throughout the past year, despite the anxieties and restrictions generated by the pandemic, great work can still be achieved by the public and private sectors, by charities, communities and individuals, for the benefit of society and the wider world.

All of us in The Knowledge Exchange team – Morwen, Donna, Heather, James, Rebecca, Hannah, Euan and Hollie –  would like to wish all our readers a safe and peaceful festive season, and very happy new year.

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Food for thought: how the UK food strategy is trying to revolutionise the way we think about and access food

Photo by Trang Doan on Pexels.com

Research has shown that healthy food choices are three times more expensive than unhealthy ones, food bank use is at it highest ever level and the NHS is anticipating significant struggles in long term treatment of people with conditions linked to obesity and unhealthy lifestyles, like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

A forecast published in a report by the Food Foundation showed that if we continue at our current rate and type of food consumption 22% of children born in 2020 will be overweight or obese by age 5, rising to 46% by the time they reach age 21.

But the impact doesn’t stop there. The food system – agriculture, food production, distribution and retail combined – releases more greenhouse gases than any other sector apart from energy. In the UK, the food system accounts for a fifth of domestic emissions – but that figure rises to around 30% if we factor in the emissions produced by all the food we import.

The food we eat – and the way we produce it – is doing damage to both the environment and our health and the government is now trying to take steps to mitigate the damage, and improve our health and wellbeing in the process through the roll out of a national food strategy.

Fixing a broken system

Figures from the Trussell Trust show that between April 2020 and March 2021, a record 2.5 million emergency food parcels were given to people in crisis. The increasing use of foodbanks shows just how deeply entwined inequality, food and health are, and how important it is for a robust and equitable food strategy to be rolled out.

The Broken Plate 2021 report from the Food foundation provides an overview of the food system in the UK, looking across four main themes:

  • making healthier options more appealing;
  • making healthier options more affordable;
  • making healthier and more sustainable options more available; and
  • addressing inequalities in food so that everyone can have the chance to live longer, healthier lives.

In July 2021 the UK government published a review into how the food system in the UK works and the interventions that could be brought in to prevent the harms from what we eat and the way we eat. The plan sets out recommendations and a strategy for the future which focuses on food being equitable, accessible, healthier, and sustainable.

The recommendations cover a number of key themes:

  • escape the “junk food cycle”, including introducing a Salt and Sugar Reformulation Tax;
  • reduce diet-related inequality, including extending eligibility for free school meals;
  • make the best use of our land – including guaranteeing agricultural payments to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use; and
  • create a long term shift in food culture, including the development of a robust system of data collection and reporting to help monitor long term progress.

Inequality exacerbated by unequal access to food

One of the most pressing issues around food is its availability and its ability to exacerbate existing inequalities, particularly among disadvantaged groups. We have already seen that food bank use is high (disproportionately so among lower income groups) and that eating healthier food is more expensive than unhealthy food.

The shelf life of more unhealthy and highly processed food is also often longer, so it is easier to store, and food can be spread out and eaten across multiple days more easily. Processed foods, which are often higher in sugar, salt and trans fats (unhealthy fats) also often require less cooking (both in terms of heat energy required to cook them and knowledge of how to prepare them) which for people with reduced access to kitchens, experience of fuel poverty or limited knowledge of preparing food can be more convenient. Research consistently shows that people who fall into these groups are significantly more likely to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and have experience of poverty.

Steps are being taken to try and improve access to healthier food for people living on lower incomes, including free school meals and (with a bit of persuasion from Marcus Rashford) a wider roll out to also offer meals during school holidays. The government also runs a voucher system for new parents to help them get access to fresh food like fruit and vegetables.

More recently there has also been discussion about the roll out of “food on prescription” services, both for those people on lower incomes and for those people who are at risk of medical complications or disease as a result of being overweight or obese.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

Sustainable as well as healthy

As has been made clear in the reports, food systems don’t just impact on us as individuals, they also have a significant impact on the environment. The changing climate is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, including multiple extreme weather events, the publication of an IPCC report on climate change, and the run up to COP26, due to be held in Glasgow. So the way we grow and process our food, and how this negatively impacts our environment is coming under greater scrutiny.

Currently, many practices are having a negative and detrimental impact on our environment across a number of areas including carbon emissions, water pollution, reduction in soil health, loss of biodiversity, land use/deforestation.

And commentators are now emphasising that our food system as well as being healthy and accessible should also be sustainable, with programmes developed to reduce food waste, support community-based agriculture schemes, help farmers to transition to more sustainable ways to farm and use land and stimulate demand for in season, sustainably grown, locally sourced food.

Final Thoughts

Food, and our relationship with it is becoming increasingly important, not only for our own personal health and wellbeing, but also for the health of communities more generally, and the health of our planet.

Sustainable, healthy and equitable food systems help to promote healthier choices and reduce our impact on the planet. And food can also play its part in helping to relieve other pressures on society, like food poverty, inequality and the rising use of food banks. Food on prescription services can help support people to make better choices and reduce the risk of diseases like cancer, heart disease, stroke and obesity.

In short, food is not just vital for life, but also for living well.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topic areas are interesting our research team.

If you enjoyed this article, you my also like to read:

A nudge in the right direction? Using behavioural insights in health

Heating Clydebank via the Clyde: renewable heat in the COP26 host city

“The infrastructure of everyday life” – has the time come for the foundational economy?

The last few years has seen growing interest in what has been termed the ‘foundational economy’ and its potential value for achieving economic security and social sustainability. Accounting for around 44% of UK employment, it has been argued that supporting this section of the economy could ultimately improve productivity. And the current pandemic has placed even more emphasis on the importance of the foundational economy – the part of the economy that cannot be shut down.

What is the foundational economy?

The foundational economy provides universal basic services built from the activities which provide the essential goods and services for everyday life, regardless of the social status of consumers. Primarily delivered locally, these goods and services encompass infrastructures, utilities, food, retailing and distribution, education, health and welfare. Because of this, it is thought to have considerable potential to regenerate the areas where the local economy is relatively weak – perhaps the perfect solution for the levelling up agenda?

The initial manifesto for the foundational economy from researchers at the University of Manchester resulted from dissatisfaction with generic industrial and regional policy focused on promoting competition and markets; with success measured in terms of job creation and GDP growth. According to the manifesto, the foundational economy is “the mundane production of everyday necessities” which is taken for granted by all members of the population. As such, it is often also referred to as the ‘sheltered’ or ‘invisible’ economy.

Scale and value

In providing the infrastructure for everyday life, the foundational economy is also very large. It has been noted that in all European countries, it directly employs around 40% of the workforce. In the UK, around 44% of the workforce is employed in foundational activities. In Germany, it is 41% and Italy it is 37%. The value of foundational output and volume and diversity of foundational employment is therefore much larger than in high-tech and tradeable services, with which policymakers are determinedly focused on.

Other measures of value have also been highlighted, such as household expenditure. The initial manifesto notes the importance of weekly spend on the foundational economy with nearly 30% of all household expenditure going on foundational activities.

Despite providing vital services, and employing a significant portion of the UK population, the foundational economy is marked by low-tech, low-wage, part time and often precarious employment and is potentially at risk from automation, despite the significant ‘human’ element to many of the different job roles which make up this part of the economy. Within society a lot of foundational jobs are still considered by many (often who don’t work in the sector) to be “jobs you move on from” where in reality, for many people, particularly women and migrant workers, this isn’t the case.

But where would we be without these roles providing for all citizens’ basic needs? Job creation and GDP growth may suggest a successful economy but this, it is argued, does not show the wellbeing of all society or sustainability. In the face of current, and indeed future, crises, it seems perceptions may be starting to change as more and more people become concerned with health and wellbeing and the environment. Indeed, it has long been argued that necessity is only recognised in times of crises.

Has Covid-19 shone a vital light on the foundational economy?

While many sectors were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the foundational economy remained open as it was considered systemically important for meeting basic needs. The pandemic has highlighted that this part of the economy is needed at all times, including at times of crisis.

Healthcare staff have become frontline heroes and food delivery drivers are recognised as key workers. But this enhanced status has also highlighted the poor pay and conditions of many key workers delivering these essential goods and services and the inherent inequality that exists in society.

Just like other crises, from natural disasters to large scale economic shocks, these bear most heavily on the poor and vulnerable. The pandemic has shown that these inequalities must be addressed so that basic everyday services are more equally available.

The pandemic has also shown that economies are about more than market economies. It has been argued that there needs to be a move towards meeting a population’s basic needs rather than on individual consumption.

Way forward

Advocates of the foundational economy argue that public policy should focus on securing the supply of basic goods and services for all citizens in a socially responsible way.

The 2020 manifesto for the foundational economy from The Foundational Economy Collective argues for the renewal of the foundational economy with a ten-point programme, including proposals related to:

  • better health and care
  • housing and energy
  • food supply
  • social licensing
  • tax reform
  • disintermediation of investment from pension funds and insurance companies
  • shorter supply chains in foundational commodities
  • citizen engagement
  • better technical and administrative capacity at all levels of government
  • international constructive responsibility

It has been widely agreed that a return to business-as-usual approach following the pandemic is not the way forward and that there needs to be a shift in economic policies in order to achieve a more socially and economically just society. Perhaps if such policy change is achieved, a more balanced economy that provides a good quality of life for all can eventually be realised.


If you enjoyed this, you may also be interested on some of our previous posts:

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Food for thought: is Covid-19 a watershed moment in the fight against food waste?

Image by OpenIDUser2 via GFDL

Image by OpenIDUser2 via GFDL

Much has been said about the reduced air pollution levels during the coronavirus lockdown as a result of the drastic reduction in travel but what about the impact other sectors are having as a result of recent changes? With eating out not currently an option, more of us are tucking in to takeaways as an alternative, which has had an impact on food waste.

Food waste in restaurants rises but waste at home is on a downward trend

New research released by Just Eat and the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) has found that “fluctuations in demand and unpredictable ordering patterns” have led to a slight increase in food waste generated in takeaway restaurants during lockdown. According to the analysis, food waste from restaurants has risen from an average of £111 to £148 per week per restaurant. This means food waste has increased from 9% of all waste to 10%, since pre-lockdown – which equates to a £16.7m rise for the sector as a whole during lockdown.

As well as the variations in demand and unpredictability of ordering patterns, the survey found that disrupted supply chain and business models also had an impact on waste. Almost half (45%) of the restaurants surveyed said they throw most food waste in the bin, which is not good news for the UN target of halving global food waste by 2030.

On the flip side, however, consumers have seemingly become more aware of the food they waste at home and are now wasting less of their takeaway, down from 9% on average to 7.2%. The research estimates that, as a result, households have saved an average of £3.2 million per week during lockdown which adds up to £22.4 million all together.

Over half (59%) of consumers say that they have a greater oversight over how much food is wasted since Covid-19. And there is also agreement that food shortages have heightened awareness of food waste, with 84% agreeing that: “Stockpiling and empty supermarket shelves showed me how important it is to make the most of what we have”.

Changing behaviours and attitudes to food waste

Another recent survey conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) of more than 4,000 participants found that almost a third of consumers said they were cooking more creatively while staying at home, while 30% have started saving leftovers. As a result of these new behaviours, the research shows that the public are throwing away a third less in food waste when compared to the average across 2018-2019, across four key products – bread, milk, potatoes and chicken.

Other changes in consumer behaviour and attitudes during lockdown, highlighted by the research include that:

  • 63% are shopping less often
  • 59% are buying more to create more meals at home
  • there has been a shift to more fresh produce and long-life products and less pre-cut veg, salad packs and ready meals
  • almost half (47%) are checking their cupboards more often before shopping, and 45% their fridge
  • 37% have been organising the food in their cupboards and the fridge
  • around 9 in 10 agree that “food waste is an important national issue” (87%) and that “everyone, including me, has a responsibility to minimise the food we throw away” (92%)

This shows there has been a small but significant change in attitudes towards food waste, according to WRAP, as this represents a 23% increase since November 2019 in the number of citizens that strongly agree with the above two statements.

Sustaining such behaviour and attitudes post-lockdown could certainly help in the fight against food waste, something the UK is already on target with.

Progress in reducing food waste

Indeed, before the current crisis, the UK had been making good progress in reducing food waste according to data from WRAP, with total levels falling by 480,000 tonnes between 2015 and 2018 – the equivalent of 7% per person and a reduction in emissions of 7.1 million tonnes CO2e.

The data shows there was a 27% reduction in food waste between 2007 and 2018, which has saved 1.7 million tonnes of food waste, equal to £4.7 billion. There was also an increase in the number of people that see food waste as an issue, rising from 26% in 2015 to 69% in 2019.

It is clear from the figures that we are moving in the right direction to meet both national and international targets on food waste, and that the current crisis has accelerated this, at least in the short term.

Final thoughts

It has been suggested that the current health crisis could perhaps be a catalyst for lasting air quality improvements. Could it also be a catalyst for a food waste revolution? The report from WRAP suggests it could be:

“This could be a watershed moment in the fight against food waste. There is a unique opportunity to embed these good habits into a ‘new normal’ – a culture which values food and reaps the maximum benefit from it. This makes good financial sense, at a time of economic uncertainty, but will also deliver significant benefits for the planet.”

Of course, the report also acknowledges that there are a range of behaviours that may require some level of support post-lockdown (particularly when citizens once again are more time-pressured). Similarly to the issue of air pollution, there will be a need to maintain certain changes and for new ways of thinking around tackling climate change across sectors when we once again shift focus back to the enduring climate emergency.

One thing is for sure, while we may begin to breathe more easily in the UK’s urban areas, it is no time to take our eye off the ball when it comes to tackling carbon emissions.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in some of our other recent posts related to food waste:

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‘Veganuary’ – could a plant-based lifestyle really save the planet?

As we leave behind the indulgences of the festive period, an increasing number of people are signing up to ‘Veganuary’, a campaign encouraging people to try vegan for the month of January and beyond. Already, the campaign has reached its target of 350,000 participants as it continues to grow in popularity; increasing its support every year since its launch in 2014.

Participants sign up for a number of reasons, with major drivers being health, animal welfare and the environment. It’s perhaps no surprise that health is a major driver, given the time of year, but increasingly people are turning away from animal products in a bid to help protect the planet.

Indeed, animal agriculture is a huge contributor to climate change and while it hasn’t received the same attention as others such as the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transport, it is now receiving increasing media coverage.

Impact of animal agriculture

“The food industry is destroying the living world”. These were the words of environmental journalist George Monbiot, also a supporter of Veganuary, in the recent Channel 4 documentary Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet.

With the increasing population, there has been much discussion in recent years of the effects of urban sprawl and how to tackle this, but Monbiot suggests that attention should be turned to ‘agricultural sprawl’, which he asserts is a much bigger cause of habitat destruction. While ambling through the indisputably scenic Lake District, he describes the landscape as a “sheep-wrecked desert”, which was once home to a rich mosaic of trees, shrubs, plants and animals.

It is also noted that while deforestation in the Amazon is a topic of much current discussion and concern, Britain is actually one of the most deforested landscapes in the world, with agriculture one of the biggest drivers.

The documentary highlights that 51% of land in the UK is currently used for livestock or growing food for livestock, while less than 20% is used for growing cereals, fruit and vegetables for human consumption, and just 10% is used for trees – the one thing that is “essential for both nourishing living systems and preventing climate breakdown”.

Agriculture is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK and 10-12% of emissions globally; the fourth highest GHG emitting sector in the world.

Monbiot makes a radical suggestion that all farming could be eradicated in the future as we look to other sources of food and more sustainable practices. This may be somewhat extreme and undoubtedly something with which the farming community would disagree.

Nevertheless, the extent of the current climate crisis warrants drastic measures and as one of the largest contributors, it would make sense for action to be taken to reduce the impact agriculture currently has.  And it has been argued that a change in diet is the easiest and fastest way to reduce our own personal emissions.

Impact of reduced meat consumption

According to calculations based on the current Veganuary participation figures, 31 days of a vegan diet for 350,000 people would equate to the following savings:

  • 41,200 tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere – the same as 450,000 flights from London to Berlin;
  • 160 tonnes of PO43 equivalent (eutrophication) from waterways – the same as preventing 650 tonnes of sewage from entering waterways; and
  • 5 million litres of water, which is enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

In addition, it is suggested that 1 million animals could be saved.

Analysis of the Veganuary 2019 campaign results by Kantar suggests that going vegan for January also leads to sustained meat reduction. Drawing on data from January to June 2019, it was found that there was a sustained reduction in consumption which is estimated to have saved approximately 3.6 million animals in Britain alone.

Still just 3% of the population identify as vegan according to Kantar. Nevertheless, those who participated in Veganuary but did not stay vegan beyond January, did maintain reduced consumption levels at least until July, suggesting a long-term impact on consumption habits.

With increasing numbers pledging their support to Veganuary each year and the resulting reductions in sales of red meat, it would seem that reducing meat consumption may well be a way forward.

Indeed, the United Nations (UN) has also emphasised the need for significant changes in global land use, agriculture and human diets. The UN-commissioned special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health”. By 2050, it suggests that dietary changes could free several million km2 of land and considerably reduce CO2 emissions.

Final thoughts

The ‘Veganuary effect’ has clearly been significant and one that sees no sign of dissipating any time soon.

Of course, changing diets isn’t the only way to reduce the environmental impact of food production. Reducing food waste and changing farming and land management practices can also help reduce emissions. The IPCC report also calls for an end to deforestation, the planting of new forests and support to small farmers. It does not call for an end to all farming.

So while we wait for the many governments to take meaningful action on climate change, perhaps picking up our knives and forks as the weapon of choice against the climate crisis is an effective way of making a difference now.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of our other posts related to the environment and climate change:

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Guest post: Some countries have introduced mandatory nutritional labelling on menus – here’s why the UK should follow suit

Olga_Moroz/Shutterstock

 

Guest post by: Dolly Theis, University of Cambridge

Would you eat a burger if you knew it contained almost 6,000 calories? Some would gladly tuck in while others would recoil in horror. But if you have calories on the menu, at least you know what you’re biting into. And as our latest research shows, menu labelling, as it is called, may be a powerful way to change the nation’s eating habits.

Research shows that the British public is increasingly eating out and ordering takeaways, rather than preparing food at home. Our earlier research estimates that a quarter of UK adults and a fifth of children eat at a restaurant or order a takeaway at least once a week. Food that isn’t prepared at home tends to be less healthy, more calorific and higher in fat, sugar and salt than food prepared at home. While eating out is a triumph for a large and important commercial sector, it is also contributing to the obesity crisis and the increase in diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Still not mandatory

Unlike nutrition labelling on pre-packaged food, which has been around for years and mandated under EU law since 2016, menu labelling is still not mandated in the UK. The government included voluntary menu labelling in its Public Health Responsibility Deal in 2011, and several establishments have since introduced menu labelling.

Of the top 100 chain restaurants in the UK, we recently found that 42 publish nutritional information on their websites, and of these, 14 voluntarily provide menu labelling in their establishments. A proposal for mandated menu labelling was included in the UK government’s Childhood Obesity Plan, and a public consultation closed last December, but no announcement on a final policy has been made so far.

Mandatory menu labelling has been introduced in other countries, including the US in 2019 and parts of Australia.

Calories explained.

Labelled menus mean healthier food

We found that food and drink sold at the top largest UK chain restaurants whose menus display energy information are lower in fat and salt than those of their competitors.

Menu labelling has often been touted as a way to provide information that helps people choose healthier dishes, but several reviews, including a recent Cochrane review, found only modest, poor quality evidence of an effect of menu labelling on purchasing and consumption. Our evidence suggests that the benefit of menu labelling may not necessarily be in helping consumers make healthier choices, but in incentivising restaurants to serve healthier food and drink. Without nutritional information, it is difficult to know where improvements are needed.

Nutritional information is only helpful if it is accurate. A 2018 study on the views of Irish food-service businesses towards voluntary menu labelling found that key barriers to implementing it included concerns about potential inaccuracies in calorie information and the lack of training on how best to provide quality calorie information.

If food outlets are mandated to provide menu labelling, they will need greater support and training to do so. But it may also increase the demand for more accurate, efficient and accessible methods of data collection (typically laboratory or electronic database analysis), promising easier ways to account for the nutritional quality of what’s on restaurant menus.

Should nanny stay at home?

Mandatory labelling will not be popular in all corners. After all, who doesn’t enjoy blowing out at the occasional all-you-can-eat buffet? The challenge is that eating out is not occasional anymore. It is has become habitual.

Fortunately, as we increasingly ditch the kitchen for the restaurant and takeaway, government has found that there is strong public support for menu labelling. Through the Childhood Obesity Plan, the government is exploring many ways to help make it easier for us all to make healthier choices and menu labelling should be considered as one of many policies, not as a silver bullet.

The 6,000-calorie burger is an extreme example. But think about it, when you last ate out, did you know how many calories you were consuming?The Conversation

Dolly Theis, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.


Read more: further reading on food from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Ugly veg: supermarkets aren’t the biggest food wasters – you are

Image via The Conversation, Amophoto_au/Shutterstock

This guest blog was written by Miriam C. Dobson, NPhD Researcher in Urban Agriculture, University of Sheffield and Jill L. Edmondson, EPSRC Living with Environmental Change Research Fellow, University of Sheffield.

“Ugly” or “wonky” veg were blamed for up to 40% of wasted fruit and vegetables in 2013, as produce was discarded for failing to meet retailer appearance standards. About 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted worldwide every year and, of this, fruit and vegetables have the highest wastage rates of any food type. But just how much of that is due to “ugly veg” being tossed by farms and supermarkets? The biggest culprit for food waste may be closer to home than we’d like to admit.

“Ugliness” is just one reason among many for why food is wasted at some point from farm to fork – there’s also overproduction, improper storage and disease. But the problem of “wonky veg” caught the public’s attention.

A report published in 2017 suggested that sales of “wonky veg” have risen in recent years as retailers have acknowledged the problem with wasting edible food, but it’s estimated that up to 25% of apples, 20% of onions and 13% of potatoes grown in the UK are still wasted on cosmetic grounds.

Morrisons reported that consumers had begun to buy more misshapen food, whereas Sainsbury’s and Tesco both report including “wonky veg” in their recipe boxes, juices, smoothies and soups.

Not all ugly veg is wasted at the retail point of the supply chain however. WRAP, a charity who have been working with governments on food waste since 2000, have investigated food waste on farms and their initial findings suggest a major cause of fruit waste is due to produce failing aesthetic standards. For example, strawberries are often discarded if they’re the wrong size for supermarkets.

The National Farmers Union also reported in 2014 that around 20% of Gala apples were being wasted prior to leaving the farm gate as they weren’t at least 50% red in colour.

Home is where the waste is

Attitudes seem to be changing on “ugly veg” at least. Morissons ran a campaign to promote its “ugly veg” produce aisle, and other supermarkets are stocking similar items. Despite this, household waste Love Food Hate Waste for food waste in the UK. Just under 5m tonnes of food wasted in the UK occurs in households – a staggering 70% of all post-farm gate food waste.

A further million tonnes is wasted in the hospitality sector, with the latest government report blaming overly generous portion sizes. This suggests that perhaps – despite the best effort of campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste – farms and retailers have been unfairly targeted by the “wonky veg” campaigns at the expense of focusing on where food waste really hits home. The 2013 Global Food Security Report put the figure for household and hospitality waste at 50% of total UK food waste.

There are some signs we’re getting better at least. WRAP’s 2015 research showed that, at the household level, people now waste 1m tonnes of food per year less than they did in 2007. This is a staggering £3.4 billion per year saved simply by throwing less edible produce away.

As climate change and its influence on extreme weather intensifies, reducing waste from precious food harvests will only become more important. Knowing exactly where the majority of waste occurs, rather than focusing too much on “wonky veg” in farms and supermarkets, is an important step towards making sure everyone has enough affordable and nutritious food to live on.

During the UK’s “Dig for Victory” campaign in World War II, a large proportion of the population had to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Now the majority of people live in cities and towns – typically detached from primary food production. In the UK, the MYHarvest project has started to uncover how much “own-growing” contributes to the national diet and it seems demand for land to grow-your-own is increasing.

Research in Italy and Germany found that people who grow their own food waste the least. One way to fight food waste at home then – whether for “wonky” fruit and vegetables or otherwise – may be to replace the farm-to-fork supply chain with a garden-to-plate approach.


Guest blog written by Miriam C. Dobson, NPhD Researcher in Urban Agriculture, University of Sheffield and Jill L. Edmondson, EPSRC Living with Environmental Change Research Fellow, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

How urban farmers are learning to grow food without soil or natural light

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

This guest blog was written by Silvio Caputo, Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

Growing food in cities became popular in Europe and North America during and immediately after World War II. Urban farming provided citizens with food, at a time when resources were desperately scarce. In the decades that followed, parcels of land which had been given over to allotments and city farms were gradually taken up for urban development. But recently, there has been a renewed interest in urban farming – albeit for very different reasons than before.

As part of a recent research project investigating how urban farming is evolving across Europe, I found that in countries where growing food was embedded in the national culture, many people have started new food production projects. There was less uptake in countries such as Greece and Slovenia, where there was no tradition of urban farming. Yet a few community projects had recently been started in those places too.

Today’s urban farmers don’t just grow food to eat; they also see urban agriculture as a way of increasing the diversity of plants and animals in the city, bringing people from different backgrounds and age groups together, improving mental and physical health and regenerating derelict neighbourhoods.

Many new urban farming projects still struggle to find suitable green spaces. But people are finding inventive solutions; growing food in skips or on rooftops, on sites that are only temporarily free, or on raised beds in abandoned industrial yards. Growers are even using technologies such as hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics to make the most of unoccupied spaces.

Something fishy

Hydroponic systems were engineered as a highly space and resource efficient form of farming. Today, they represent a considerable source of industrially grown produce; one estimate suggests that, in 2016, the hydroponic vegetable market was worth about US$6.9 billion worldwide.

Hydroponics enable people to grow food without soil and natural light, using blocks of porous material where the plants’ roots grow, and artificial lighting such as low-energy LED. A study on lettuce production found that although hydroponic crops require significantly more energy than conventionally grown food, they also use less water and have considerably higher yields.

Growing hydroponic crops usually requires sophisticated technology, specialist skills and expensive equipment. But simplified versions can be affordable and easy to use.

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

Hemmaodlat is an organisation based in Malmö, in a neighbourhood primarily occupied by low-income groups and immigrants. The area is densely built, and there’s no green space available to grow food locally. Plus, the Swedish summer is short and not always ideal for growing crops. Instead, the organisation aims to promote hydroponic systems among local communities, as a way to grow fresh food using low-cost equipment.

The Bristol Fish Project is a community-supported aquaponics farm, which breeds fish and uses the organic waste they produce to fertilise plants grown hydroponically. GrowUp is another aquaponics venture located in an East London warehouse – they grow food and farm fish using only artificial light. Similarly, Growing Underground is an enterprise that produces crops in tunnels, which were originally built as air raid shelters during World War II in London.

The next big thing?

The potential to grow food in small spaces, under any environmental conditions, are certainly big advantages in an urban context. But these technologies also mean that the time spent outdoors, weathering the natural cycles of the seasons, is lost. Also, hydroponic systems require nutrients that are often synthesised chemically – although organic nutrients are now becoming available. Many urban farmers grow their food following organic principles, partly because the excessive use of chemical fertilisers is damaging soil fertility and polluting groundwater.

To see whether these drawbacks would put urban growers off using hydroponic systems, my colleagues and I conducted a pilot study in Portsmouth. We installed small hydroponic units in two local community gardens, and interviewed volunteers and visitors to the gardens. Many of the people we spoke to were well informed about hydroponic technology, and knew that some of the vegetables sold in supermarkets today are produced with this system.

Many were fascinated by the idea of growing food without soil within their community projects, but at the same time reluctant to consume the produce because of the chemical nutrients used. A few interviewees were also uncomfortable with the idea that the food was not grown naturally. We intend to repeat this experiment in the near future, to see how public opinion changes over time.

And while we don’t think hydroponic systems can replace the enjoyment that growing food in soil can offer, they can save water and produce safe food, either indoors or outdoors, in a world with increasingly scarce resources. Learning to use these new technologies, and integrating them into existing projects, can only help to grow even more sustainable food.

As with many technological advancements, it could be that a period of slow acceptance will be followed by rapid, widespread uptake. Perhaps the fact that IKEA is selling portable hydroponic units, while hydroponic cabinets are on the market as components of kitchen systems, is a sign that this technology is primed to enter mainstream use.


Silvio Caputo is Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Supporting markets to survive and thrive

For around a thousand years, the London Borough Market has existed in one form or another.  It has survived fire, flood, plague and war – and on the 3rd of June this year, a terrorist attack.  The market has since reopened, with traders determined to continue their work and serve the local community.

Although many markets are a historic part of their host towns and cities, they are far from being relics.  Indeed, in recent years markets have experienced something of a revival.  In London alone, since 2010, the number of street markets has grown from 162 to over 250.

There are clear reasons for this – markets offer consumers and traders a number of benefits, and they make significant contributions to the economic, social and political health of towns and cities.

Economic impact of markets

Indeed, in 2015, the Institute of Place Management (IPM) conducted a comprehensive review of the impact of markets and found that markets not only have a significant turnover, they also impact indirectly on the wider economy – meaning that the £3.5 billion turnover directly attributable to retail markets is actually worth around £10.5 billion to the UK economy.

The Portas review in 2011 hailed markets as a potential saviour of the high street.  Indeed, the IPM review supports this, reporting that markets can help to increase town centre footfall by up to 25%.  This has significant economic potential.  In London, market visitors spend around £752 million per annum in nearby shop-based retailers.

Markets were also found to:

  • act as a significant employer, both nationally and at the local level
  • support intergenerational economic mobility (through family-owned businesses)
  • support the development of entrepreneurial skills in young people through ‘youth markets’
  • act as business incubators and support business formation due to their low barriers to entry, for example, enabling migrants to set up their own businesses
  • enable small businesses to reach larger businesses whom they can supply, and support other local businesses, such as farmers.
  • encourage high street diversity and create a distinct ‘identity’ for high streets
  • promote high street resilience, as they are flexible and able to respond quickly to changing demands.
  • help to utilise vacant and underused spaces within high streets
  • attract tourists, who are drawn to them because they are “unique, quirky, unusual”

Wider benefits

Markets also have a number of social purposes.  They are important places of social interaction, which facilitate community cohesion and social inclusion.  Markets can also help to improve public health and quality of life through the provision of fresh, quality produce at lower price points, which may be particularly beneficial for low-income families.

From an environmental perspective, there are also a number of benefits arising from the sale and purchase of locally produced products, including reducing pollution associated with high ‘food miles’ and reducing the need for consumers to travel to out-of-town sites, such as large retail parks, in order to make their purchases.

Challenges

Although there is overwhelming evidence that almost every street, food and farmer’s market is an invaluable asset to its local community, markets still face a number of very real threats.  These include:

  • the rise of out-of-town shopping centres, the dominance of big supermarkets, and the popularity of online shopping
  • planning and regulatory regimes that do not allow for, or restrict, the expansion or establishment of markets
  • a lack of support for markets or poor management by local authorities
  • high land values making it difficult for markets to be established

As many markets are a lifeline for areas experiencing deprivation, it is important that they receive the support that they require to survive and flourish.

Promoting and supporting markets

So, what can be done to support markets?  Earlier this year, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced plans to establish the London Markets Board – a team of experts tasked with delivering a London markets strategy, and work to preserve and promote London’s increasing number of markets.

On a wider scale, NABMA (National Association of British Market Authorities) and the National Market Traders Federation recently published a ‘five-year manifesto’, which made a number of recommendations for ways to support markets.

A key recommendation is that local authorities work to raise the profile of markets.  There are many market-focused national initiatives such as Love Your Local Market, the National Youth Market, and the Great British Market Awards, which local authorities can become involved in.

The Love Your Local Market campaign, for example, is an annual event, established in 2012, which brings together markets across the UK.  It aims to build affection and support for markets in local communities, and offers free or subsidised pitches to start-ups to test trading conditions.  In 2013, it increased footfall in participating town centres by 10%.

Other recommendations to support markets include:

  • greater recognition of the role of markets in local economies, jobs and growth, as well as in civic local society
  • ensuring that retail markets have a voice in policy making that affects them, including planning and town centre management
  • further lifting the current burden of business rates for SMEs
  • supporting greater awareness of the sector’s employment opportunities including apprenticeships, platforms for self-employment and training hubs
  • developing and supporting sector-led initiatives that aim to support entrepreneurship and increase the amount of businesses on markets, and support them digitally
  • encouraging schools and further education establishments to work with market operators to enable people entering the labour market to embrace markets as a possible career

There are some promising signs.  Around £90 million has been invested into improving markets since 2014, and an increasing number of local authorities are making them central to town centre plans and regeneration activity.

By promoting and supporting markets in this way, the economic, social and environmental benefits can be maximised. As the 2015 review of markets underlines: “markets are an important asset to a location, and their future cannot be left to chance.”