Agri-Health / Consumption / Food Security / Human Health / Policy / Report / Spotlight / UK

It’s simple (everybody eats); It’s complicated (everybody eats differently)

BasquiatJean-Michel_EyesAndEggs (1983)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Eyes and Eggs, 1983 (via WikiArt).

The inestimable Tara Garnett, of the Food Climate Research Network, offers much new food for thought on ‘the meat question’ in a discussion paper on What is a sustainable healthy diet? and a new think pieceGut feelings and possible tomorrows: (where) does animal farming fit?  

Discussion paper

Garnett’s discussion paper, which focuses largely on developed-country contexts, describes the challenge of reconciling all the trade-offs in the many goals we have for our food systems:

About half the global population is inadequately or inappropriately nourished, once the combined burdens of hunger, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity are taken into account. . . .  Can health, environmental sustainability, and all the other goals we have for our food system really be reconciled, or will there be trade offs? . . .

First there is a need to address power imbalances in the food system: throwing more food at the problem may not solve problems of affordability and access. . . .

Second we need to reduce the amount of food that is lost or wasted along the whole supply chain – one estimate puts the figure at between 30-50% of all food produced . . . .

Third, diets will also need to change. What, and how much we eat directly affects what, and how much is produced.

Like the popular American food systems reformer Michael Pollan, the UK’s Tara Garnett comes down to some simple sensible home truths about diets that are both healthy and sustainable, designed for people who have the means to make choices. Pollan memorably got his advice into a declarative bullet appended by two easy-to-remember, if hard-to-follow, qualifiers:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Here is Garnett’s sensible version: 

  • Eat a wide variety of foods

  • Maintain an energy balance

  • Base your diet around tubers and whole grains (but not rice), legumes, fruits and vegetables — particularly those field grown and robust

  • Eat dairy products or fortified plant-substitutes and other calcium-containing foods in moderation

  • Eat meat eaten sparingly — and consume all animal parts

  • Include unsalted seeds and nuts in your diet

  • Eat some fish and aquatic products sourced from certified fisheries (although less frequently than advised by the Eatwell Plate)

  • Limit your consumption of sugary and fatty sweets, chocolates, snacks and beverages

  • Drink tap water in preference to other beverages

Think piece

And here is Garnett in her Think piece describing how our food narratives drive our food solutions:

‘The “future of food” problem is an industry in its own right. It is its very own subsector of the new green economy, spawning innumerable high level conferences, power dinners, “ground breaking” reports, multiply-referenced analyses, think tanks, dedicated academic journals and a proliferation of NGO campaigns and food industry roundtables – all seeking to “address” the variously termed twin challenges, wicked problems and perfect storms that the food system engenders. . . .

‘The difficulty is that there is less unanimity as to what causes the problem, on what or who is to blame and why. This matters because our views about what drives a problem shape our assessment of what constitutes a solution. . . .

While the stories we tell ourselves about how and why things are, . . . the risk is that facts are squeezed and edited and shaved to fit the desired or assumed narrative. And those with most power tend to determine which narrative dominates.

One particular issue exemplifies both the complexities of the food problem, and the different and contested narratives that interest groups (stakeholders), present. This is the “meat question” . . . .’

Garnet goes on to list today’s three main food narratives:

1 Story One: Not enough food. ‘The grand challenge is thus to deliver more food – and more of the foods we want – in ways that generate fewer environmental problems.’

2 Story Two: Too much greed. ‘Our consumption patterns are catastrophically resource intensive and they make us fat and sick. We must change them.’

3 Story Three: Too much inequality. ‘Hunger is not a problem of insufficient supply but of insufficient access.’

Which story dominates your thinking will decide, Garnett says, which solution you support. She goes on to describe what sustainable food systems might look like, and the roles of livestock in them, by painting four future scenarios:

  • Calibrated carnivory

  • Architected flesh

  • Livestock on leftovers

  • Fruits of the earth

Of course, as Garnett is well aware, for some one billion people today, Story One is the only story. These people live in severe material poverty (under $1.25 a day). They consume too few calories to maintain optimum bodyweight, energy and health. They have little to no choice about the food they or their children consume—this will be the cheapest starch available. Vegetables will come in a single form (such as cabbage) every single day, if they are lucky. Meat will not be on the menu. Dying early due to consuming too much cholesterol will not be an option.

Read the discussion paper: What is a sustainable healthy diet? by Tara Garnett, published by FCRN, Apr 2014. Garnett notes that ‘this is very much a discussion paper and work in progress. As such we would very much welcome comments and suggestions. We’d particularly welcome input from members in low income and emerging economies, where the sustainability and health issues play out very differently. Do send through your comments in the following ways: by posting a comment on the website using the Add new comment link below (you will need to be logged into do so – contact us if you have forgotten them) or by contacting the FCRN’s Tara Garnett directly:

Read the think piece: Gut feelings and possible tomorrows: (where) does animal farming fit?​ by Tara Garnett, published by FCRN, May 2015.

Visit the website of the Food Climate Research Network to view these documents and much more. (Note that the FCRN home page offers six portals into the FCRN’s huge research library, ‘containing summaries of 10 years’ worth of research and information on food systems, climate and sustainability issues’ and ‘over 3,500 summarised journal articles, reports and other resources.’)

Join the FCRN mailing list here and follow them on Twitter: @FCRNNetwork.

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