Developing a ‘regional’ sustainability alongside global ideas of climate and meat intake could help create a fairer food system with more capacity to produce sustainable food.
That was the message from food policy expert, Tim Lang, who spoke last weekend at the Abergavenny Food Festival in a session named ‘the diet that could save the world’.
Lang, who co-authored the recent Eat-Lancet report that produced the controversial ‘planetary diet’ guidelines, said: “The principles are global but the dietary picture is nuanced. The diet that could save the world could be very different in different regions.
“There is an argument that livestock can sequester carbon, and that is true, but that is not how most animals are kept. Most livestock globally is fed on grains. 70 per cent of the British diet comes from elsewhere – we’re not feeding ourselves.”
Lang said it is possible to combine a global need to reduce meat intake with national and regional farming systems that still benefit from livestock. Rewilding the uplands and bringing livestock down off the hills, but retaining them on lower regions as part of a soil fertility programme, would bring the benefit of carbon sinks and flood defences, he said.
As a former rare breed cattle farmer, he said there is a role for livestock in regions such as Monmouthshire. “We also need to grow more fruit and vegetables where possible. I was a farmer, I’m not telling you to start growing bananas on the top of a hill,” he said.
Giving farmers a bigger percentage of food prices would also help create a more diverse and resilient food system in the UK, according to Lang.
“There is a huge amount of money washing around food and not much of it goes to primary producers,” he said. “I think it’s fundamentally wrong to be squeezing farmers so much that they depend on subsidies.
“It’s something that Britain needs to wake up to. What we’ve got at the moment is an unequal food system that is driven by markets. I don’t see a way of improving it unless we give more money to primary producers.”
Out of the £220 billion spent on food in the UK last year, only £9bn of that went to farmers, said Lang. Diverse mixed farming has largely been lost, as the pressure on farming has caused the rise in more economically efficient monocultures or intensive farming, he added.
As well as ensuring more money goes back to producers, Lang said there is a role for citizens to “be noisier” about the food system they want to see. “One thing we can do is build on the Abergavenny Food Festival and think about bioregional food systems,” he said.
“We’re in an interesting place, and we’re in a stronger position to be noisier. Our politicians will not act on it unless we do that. It’s about us making the demands.”
Chief executive of Abergavenny Food Festival, Aine Morris, used her speech at the press launch to highlight the empowerment behind seemingly small food moments.
“It’s about who do we want to control our food, is it multinational corporations, or is it communities?” she said.
“It’s about the small things you can do, like pickling a cabbage and making a sourdough starter, that can overall have a huge impact on a global scale. Food festivals are about taking back control.”