COP26 – we have missed an opportunity

Whilst COP26 delegates may have dined on a plant-based menu, such is the frustration with the lack of focus on food and agriculture, that a group of campaigners unfurled a huge banner outside the building for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural (DEFRA) last week with the words “COP: Invest in a plant-based future”.

Nowhere has food and agriculture appeared on the COP26 agenda or the government’s agenda. Despite the good work that went into the National Food Strategy for the UK, led by Henry Dimbleby and published in July this year to an initial flurry of enthusiasm, it appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

Having digested the National Food Strategy from cover to cover I have to say that I recommend it. Anyone with an interest in why we’re getting so fat and what we can do about it, should have a read.

There are several well-reasoned arguments on why we need to change our eating behaviour and sooner rather than later.

We have to break what the National Food Strategy calls the “junk food cycle”.
It’s ruining our health and explains why 64% of us in the UK are now overweight or obese and costing our National Health Service a fortune.The National Food Strategy is recommending that we eat 30% less meat, 30% more fruit and vegetables, 50% more fibre and 30% less foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), not just for health reasons but for climate reasons too.

The way that we grow and distribute our food is wasteful and not sustainable.
We have to embrace new ways of growing food and the National Food Strategy covers some exciting and innovative ways to make more use of our land and grow more food which is kinder to our climate. Agriculture produces 11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions which have risen 14% since 2000 and this figure does not include land use and forestry. [i]

Eating more plants and less meat will actually affect your life chances.
Yes, you’re much more likely to live longer if you have a plant-based diet. Having just waded through much of the research over the past few decades, there are enough long term studies to prove a link between animal versus plant diets and your risk of mortality. [ii] The risks are much lower if you eat plants.

Eating less meat will actually help the planet too.
And it’s what the public want us to do to cut our carbon footprint. As a meat eater I’ve been convinced recently by all the research I’ve come across on the carbon footprint of our food[iii] that now is the time to change my behaviour and to eat less meat. Especially beef and lamb, which are shown to have the highest carbon footprint. If you want to check your own diet, have a play with the BBC’s Climate Change Food Calculator.

Whilst no one wants a nanny state telling us what we should and shouldn’t eat, I’m of the opinion that we’ve lost our battle with junk food and too many of us are totally addicted to it.

Is it genes or food deserts that cause obesity?

Some of us are more predisposed to obesity than others, because of our genes, but that’s only a small part of the issue. Local authorities increasingly talk about the “food deserts” in many of our cities which drive up rates of childhood overweight obesity to 40% of 10 and 11 year olds in many English cities. These are areas where it’s difficult to buy healthy food and the density of unhealthy fast food outlets is very high. We are living in obesogenic environments and the slick marketing campaigns of the food industry are persuading us to eat more and more unhealthy, ultra-processed food, sugary drinks and snacks.

We need support to save ourselves from a life of obesity and ill health, and help the planet in the process.

There is no stopping this rising obesity trend, unless we regulate against the tide of salty, sweet and fatty food surrounding us 24/7 and face the facts about meat versus plants.

We need to focus on the quality and not just the safety of our food.

If only we had a regulatory body and food standards agency that took an interest in not only the safety of what we eat, but paid more attention to the addictive nature of highly-processed junk food. It needs to regulate the quality of the food that we serve up in our schools and control how much junk food is advertised on our TV and mobile phone screens every day.

Whilst celebrity chef Jamie Oliver did much to raise awareness of the dangers of giving rubbish food to our children, the momentum has dissipated. We do not have regulatory bodies with enough power to improve the quality of our food and limit our exposure to bad food.

We have to consider the same strategies that worked for reducing deaths from smoking. Obesity kills too but it’s just a bit slower.

What’s good for our bodies is good for the planet.

Many people care about the environment and we now need to persuade the government to listen to what we care most about and ways we’re keen to reduce our carbon footprint. Research carried out by Demos using the Climate Calculator showed that the four most popular climate policies with the public included encouraging less red meat and dairy consumption. [iv] What’s good for our bodies is also good for the planet. The public actually prefers policies that require the UK government to take a well-planned approach to a net-zero carbon emission target.

This is the first in a series of articles that I’ll be writing in relation to my forthcoming book “Obesity Uncovered” to be published in Spring 2022. The book is a very personal journey that I want to share with you, to make sense of why so many of us are fighting overweight and obesity, and what we should do about it.

What’s your view?

Never have I come across a topic such as obesity, which is so complex and full of contradictory theories and views. I will welcome your comments and thoughts, so please come and share your views and experiences on our social pages.

[i] 5 questions about agricultural emissions answered. 29 July 2019. World Resources Institute By Aleksandra Arcipowska, Emily Mangan, You Lyu and Richard Waite

[ii] Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality October 2016 Mingyang Song, MD, ScD1,2; Teresa T. Fung, ScD2,3; Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD2,4,5

[iii] Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers J Poore and T Nemecek 1 June 2018 Science

[iv] The Climate Consensus The public’s view on how to cut emissions September 2021 Demos

Photo Credit: Markus Spiske Unsplash