The report looked at the impact of the food system, infrastructure and biodiversity on health and the environment © Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
The report looked at the impact of the food system, infrastructure and biodiversity on health and the environment © Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Food system ‘not working for human health or for the planet’

MPs have called for food procured by the government to be “sustainable by default” to help address climate concerns. 

In a report, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said the government must coordinate its efforts to ensure that healthy and sustainable diets are available and affordable in the UK.

The British Dietetic Association told MPs the global food system is “not working either for human health or for the planet”.

The report highlighted recommendations from Public Health England’s Eatwell Guide which suggested a healthy diet largely made up of fruit and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates with smaller amounts of meat, fish, eggs and other protein sources and dairy. 

If diets in the UK reflected the guide, the Carbon Trust estimated there would be a 32% reduction in overall environmental impacts associated with diets, the report said. 

The EAC recommended there should be government-wide coordination to promote advice from the Eatwell Guide, adding it should be considered in future procurement policies. 

“This should be reflected in the government’s procurement policies… Food provided by the government should be sustainable by default and comply with the Eatwell Guide recommendations. 

“This could lead to an estimated reduction of 30% in the carbon footprint of the government’s purchased food,” it said. 

It added there must be “clear guidelines for government procurement of food in schools, hospitals and prisons to be sustainable by default”.

The report also made recommendations on how the government should proceed with its National Food Strategy, which should include policies which shift towards lower meat and dairy consumption to achieve the net zero target, the EAC said. 

“The strategy should set out how public procurement teams, as well as the food and agriculture industry, can deliver this goal.”

The report also looked at areas such as the impact of city planning, healthcare and biodiversity to examine how each factor impacts the environment and health. 

Current rates of extinction are at 100-1,000 times more than what is considered natural biodiversity loss, the report warned. 

Climate change and other stressors have contributed to a significant reduction in pollinating insects, which are crucial to the reproduction of 87 types of common global food crops, which account for more than 35% of annual global food production, the report warned. 

It added the government’s progress towards meeting the Aichi biodiversity targets by 2020 fell woefully short, and recommended priorities for action must be set out. 

Meanwhile, the report said poor housing quality and designs in cities were found to have significant harmful impacts on physical and mental health and life expectancy. 

While cities are responsible for 70% of global emissions, city design and lifestyles contribute to poor outdoor and indoor air quality, with issues ranging from asthma to diabetes.

“Integrated urban planning is essential to ensure better planetary health outcomes. The transport sector relies heavily on unsustainable fossil fuel energy and is a contributor to sedentary lifestyles,” the EAC said.  

Witnesses to the committee instead encouraged “active transport”, such as walking and cycling. 

The EAC also expressed concerns that the NHS would not be prepared for the rise in health problems as a result of environmental damage, while the “pharmaceutical industry is not sufficiently resourced to deal with projected changes”.

“We also note the recent stalling in life expectancy in the UK as a result of lifestyle changes with increased pressure for NHS resources,” it said. 

Public Health England should broaden its key performance indicators to include climate resilience and adaptation measures to tackle emerging diseases such as Lyme disease, malaria and the zika virus, the report said.

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