How the food industry can transform the national diet
WWF’s Joanna Trewern discusses why she thinks brands should enable consumers to make better choices for themselves and the planet when purchasing food.
We’re facing into a triple challenge: how to feed a growing global population while limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees and restoring nature. We operate in a global food system, but production and consumption happen locally, meaning we need local solutions to drive change.
In the UK, transforming the national diet is vital to meet this triple challenge and deliver positive benefits for climate, nature and people. That’s why it’s such a critical part of our work at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Our global emissions budget will run out in just six years if we carry on with business as usual, according to recent research. With food accounting for around 30 percent of global emissions, it’s a prime area that needs deep transformation. In the UK, we can wave goodbye to our national net zero target unless we transition to healthy sustainable diets. Dietary ill-health including obesity and micronutrient deficiencies will only get worse, and the same goes for diet inequality.
Eating for Net Zero – a healthy sustainable UK diet
The good news is that we can achieve a healthy sustainable diet for the UK population without everyone having to go vegetarian or vegan or give up treats. It’s possible to adopt a healthy sustainable diet that works for the many rather than the few, one that is nutritious, cost-effective and has a lower environmental impact.
In our new Eating for Net Zero report, we show what this diet looks like: it’s plant-rich, varied, with moderate amounts of meat, dairy and eggs and lower-footprint seafood, and minimal amounts of foods high in fat, salt and sugar that currently dominate the diets of many in the UK.
This diet doesn’t have to cost more than consumers spend on their weekly shop now (savings come from the reduction in animal products), and it also meets UK Government nutrition recommendations for key macro and micronutrients (the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommendations that underpin the Eatwell Guide).
In this diet, we’d be eating 45 percent more fruit and veg, 50 percent more pulses, legumes and beans, and 35 percent more wholegrains than we do now. Consumption of meat in this diet goes down by 69 percent, dairy by 25 percent (mainly cheese), and eggs by 32 percent. From an environmental perspective these changes deliver a 36 percent reduction in emissions – over halfway to where we need to get to by 2030 to limit warming to 1.5 degrees – a 26 percent reduction in biodiversity loss, and better outcomes for soil health and freshwater quality.
A total of 69 percent of the emissions reduction is attributed to eating less meat, dairy and eggs, showing how important this change is. Moving the whole UK population in this direction, including enabling people who eat larger volumes of meat and dairy to reduce their intake, will drive higher emissions reductions.
What works to shift diets
Lots of evidence shows that consumers aspire to eat healthily and sustainably. For example, in the People’s Plan for Nature (developed off the back of the world’s first citizen assembly on nature) diet shift was one of the top priorities identified.
What’s more, in a recent survey, over 70 percent of UK respondents said that food manufacturers have the responsibility to ensure the food they sell is sustainably produced. This is something people want, it’s just not something they can always do by themselves.
This is because food environments (which options are available, how much they cost, and how they’re marketed) determine what consumers buy and eat. These factors are beyond their control, and they can’t influence them. Right now, this is a barrier to consumers making purchasing decisions that are aligned with their values and aspirations. We can’t expect consumers to suddenly make completely different choices if we don’t remove the barriers that are in their way.
Companies and government should step up to enable consumers to make choices that are more aligned with their values and aspirations. Those that can get this right will feel the benefits, build brand loyalty, and position themselves as leaders in enabling consumers to make the choices they want to make.
In Eating for Net Zero we’ve identified seven levers to accelerate sustainable diets uptake. These include dietary guidelines, public food procurement, transparency and accountability, investment in sustainable production and food environments.
Interconnected strategies to transform food environments
To transform the national diet food businesses will need to transform the food environments they manage such as supermarkets, restaurants, and canteens. It’s in these food environments that consumers make choices on what to buy and eat. The end goal of transforming food environments should be to rebalance what consumers put in their baskets and on their plates. Increasing the share of plant-based foods including pulses, legumes, vegetables, and wholegrains is important as these foods typically have a lower environmental impact to produce than animal-sourced foods.
To enable diet shift at scale, healthy, sustainable products and meals need to be the most available, affordable, accessible, and appealing options. Consumers expect businesses to encourage the adoption of healthier, more sustainable diets by increasing the availability of plant-rich foods and ensuring they are available, affordable, and accessible in supermarkets, restaurants, and canteens.
Enabling consumers to buy and eat differently will involve interconnected strategies that come to life in food environments. Innovation and product and meal development are key. If we can’t make plant-rich meals tasty, then consumers won’t buy them.
We should be aiming for food offers in supermarkets, restaurants, and canteens that have a greater share of plant-rich options than meat and dairy options, especially those that use wholefoods such as beans and lentils.
Convincing the consumer
Aligning the food offer with healthy sustainable diets is one thing, getting consumers to buy them is another.
Advertising and price promotions will be needed to support these new and reformulated meals and products, making them accessible to consumers in the cost-of-living crisis. Placing these options in prominent positions in food environments, and making them the default option where possible, can help to boost sales.
Using marketing to normalise sustainable diets, and nudge and support consumers to make better choices is an important lever for change that will also enable a more positive food culture to emerge longer-term, one where we value and appreciate our food.
About the author:
Joanna Trewern is Head of Consumption at WWF-UK (World Wide Fund For Nature), where she identifies and tests policy solutions that aim to deliver a shift toward more sustainable consumption at scale. Her expertise lies in healthy, sustainable diets, food systems, and behaviour change. Joanna has a PhD in Sustainability where she explored how food retailers can enable the adoption of more sustainable consumer diets in the UK. As well as influencing national policy and engaging with a range of food businesses to guide their corporate sustainability strategies, Joanna has experience in shaping multilateral policymaking processes gained through leadership roles in the UN Food Systems Summit and the World Food Forum.