HomeNatural environmentFive ideas to put sustainable food at the heart of a green recovery

Five ideas to put sustainable food at the heart of a green recovery

intext-chickensThis piece is by Ruth Wescott, climate and nature emergency and sustainable fish cities co-ordinator at Sustain.

The public overwhelmingly wants a green recovery from Covid-19. Last month a report and poll from the UK’s Citizen’s Assemblies found that 80 per cent supported Covid recovery policies that bring the UK to net zero greenhouse gas emissions, findings supported by RSPB research, and Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Conservative Environment Network. Meanwhile MPs from across the political spectrum have called for recovery investment in renewable energynet zero transportenergy efficiency, and a boost to green manufacturing.

However, so far, there’s been lamentably little said about the opportunities for a green recovery from transforming our food system. Agriculture is responsible for about 20 per cent of emissions globally. If we also consider habitat loss, and the threats of antibiotic resistance and future zoonotic diseases, our food system is probably the single biggest risk to the health of our planet. It is, therefore, one of the main means by which we can address the climate emergency and the UK cannot meet its international commitments until it does.

Sustainable food systems have many benefits
A greener food system offers so many benefits: for one thing eating more fruit and vegetables and less factory farmed, processed meat would help the prime minister help us to improve our health. Changing how we use some of our land and seas could see us producing more of our own food and bring green space closer to the urban population. Smaller food businesses, like bakeries, create more and better ‘jobs per loaf’ than industrial manufacturers.

Here are a few choices that could be made now to kick start a greener food economy:

1. Buy, serve and eat less, but better, meat
This means investing our food spending in sustainably grown seasonal fruit and vegetables, pasture-fed or free range meat, dairy and eggs, from smaller enterprises wherever possible. For fish, it means supporting sustainable fish caught off the UK coast, normally sold mostly to restaurants, which would also support a struggling industry.

This should apply to individuals, restaurants, retailers, and those managing food for public sector institutions. For inspiration, check out PS100, the public sector caterers network, who cut down on meat by 20 per cent during lockdown. A great place to start would be two food initiatives that help families struggling to put food on the table: the School Fruit and Veg scheme and Meals on Wheels. Both should be boosted, extended and use much more sustainable UK produce.

2. Recover marine ecosystems to support the domestic fishing industry
This can be done by investing in three things: 1) better science, especially stock assessments 2) paying fishers to catch less in the short term to recover stocks and 3) funding improvement projects and sustainability certification.

These actions would significantly increase fish catches in the medium and long term (probably by nearly 30 per cent), create thousands of jobs and improve the marketability of our fish. It would also allow the UK to produce more food for domestic markets and export.

In some cases, it makes sense to pay fishers to leave fish in the sea and allow ecosystems to recover, rather than catch fish with a depressed market value, the same ‘public money for public goods’ approach as for farming. Flourishing marine ecosystems would also boost wildlife tourism, recreational fishing opportunities and ‘level up’ coastal communities, which have been some of the most affected by Covid-19.

3. Free up more land for sustainable food growing
This includes space for environmentally beneficial fruit and nut tree planting, community food and small farm enterprises, especially in horticulture. Small scale agriculture appears not to have experienced the same urgent staff shortages as larger farms as they provide decent and year-round jobs compatible with family life. Releasing land for these enterprises, especially council owned land nearer to urban conurbations, could also provide the kinds of outdoor part-time jobs that many city dwellers crave, and access to land for those that may not have considered a career in farming.

4. Support smaller food businesses instead of large supermarkets
Investment in community connected businesses would make our food system more resilient and less wasteful. During the pandemic, the government has channelled hundreds of millions of pounds to major retailers by cancelling business rates, making school food vouchers redeemable only at major multiples, and directing shielded people to use supermarket deliveries.

As they did so, perfectly edible food was wasted and   was poured down the drain because people suddenly shifted their buying habits and supply chains could not adapt. It’s worth looking at the report by the Dynamic Food Procurement National Advisory Board on this. It notes that the food system is dominated by too few distributors, over specialisation, and too much power at the end of the supply chain. In our work during Covid-19, Sustain learned a very different picture from smaller food businesses that, with the right support, were able to adapt to lockdown quickly with minimal waste, retaining local jobs and trading connections with farmers.

5. Change the law around food waste
If it was once again legal to direct unavoidable food waste to be used for animal feed, we could dramatically cut the climate impact of animal farming and see the emergence of a new surplus-to-feed industry. This is suggested by Feedback’s The Pig Idea.

Food has been disappointingly absent in conversations about a green recovery so far. The first instalment of the UK’s new National Food Strategy – published today – offers the opportunity to address this and has been hotly anticipated by NGOs, businesses and parliamentarians. We must make choices now to improve our food system, for tackling climate change, better jobs and for our health, and for the kind of Covid-19 recovery that people want.

Sustain is embarking on a project to establish the economic case for a better food and farming system as part of a sustainable, fair and healthy Covid-19 recovery. If you are interested in finding out more, please contact

[Photo source: by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay]

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.