Is our food system broken?

The think-tank Planet Tracker recently stated that the world’s current food system was “inherently fragile and no longer fit for purpose” – but is our food system broken?

“From conception in the farm to consumption on the fork, the global food system accounts for a third of greenhouse gas emissions and endangers 86% of species on the IUCN Red List. Even as food reaches the end of the chain, one third is lost or wasted.” – Peter Elwin, Head of Food and Land Use, Planet Tracker

This was after Planet Tracker published a report emphasising that fixing this “broken food system” would be cheaper than financing unsustainable practices that are currently taking place. 

From a UK perspective, there are certainly many environmental and nutritional challenges to the food system. Looking at food production, distribution, food waste, nutrition, and access, it’s clear to see that the system is not in perfect health. 

We catch-up with Elbha Purcell, Director of Knowledge Labs at Nutritics to discuss this topic further: 

Health and Nutrition

In 2022, the Broken Plate report was published by The Food Foundation highlighting the negative trends of the UK’s diet and the subsequent damaging impact on our health caused by poor nutrition. The findings make for difficult reading, showing that potentially our food system is broken: 

  • On current trends, more than 80% of children born in 2022 who survive to the age of 65 will be overweight or obese.
  • Obesity in children has risen by 50% in the past year alone.
  • Healthy nutritious food is nearly three times more expensive than unhealthy products.
  • Only one in four state schools in England is known to be meeting school food nutritional requirements. 

The report called for a clear change in the Government’s food policy in order to provide a healthy future for the UK population and minimise the ever-growing nutritional gap between high- and low-income families, which has only exacerbated as a result of the cost of living crisis. Inflation and rising ingredient costs have their impact on the hospitality and foodservice sectors as well, who have to pass these on to the end customer. 

The report highlighted that affordable, healthy food should be prioritised to ensure it was accessible to all. Whilst there are hundreds of government obesity policies, such as recent sugar tax and HFSS regulations, it appears more is needed to drive actionable change, both in terms of people’s relationship and perception of healthy food, but also the way that unhealthy foods are advertised to consumers. 

From a hospitality perspective, restaurants have a responsibility to offer a variety of healthy food options, but ultimately customers will make their own choices about what they eat. There is perhaps a wider education piece required to reiterate that healthy food doesn’t need to be at the detriment to taste. At the same time, small ingredient swaps can improve the nutritional benefits of a dish without impacting on the overall flavour. 

The Environment

Interestingly, the Broken Plate report also found that unless changes are implemented, emissions from the UK food system will be four times higher by 2050 than the level needed for the UK to meet its net zero targets. 

So, the next area to consider around our food systems is whether we are set-up to achieve food security, whilst also meeting long-term environmental targets. And a key element of this is the effect farming has on natural resources. 

There is debate in the UK at present around the impact of the 2021 Environmental Act, which set out a number of proposed targets around water pollution, tree planting and rewilding. Earlier this year, the National Farmers Union stated that any environmental ambitions must work in tandem with producing quality, sustainable food, whilst The Soil Association argued that more has to be done to support the environmental health of British land, with a focus around reducing intensive farming. 

Intensive farming practices can have several significant impacts on the environment, including soil degradation; water pollution from the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that run off into aquatic ecosystems; the loss of biodiversity when land is used for a single crop, greenhouse emissions from fuels used for machinery and transportation; and animal welfare issues. 

The Soil Association has called for a farmer-led ten-year transition to agroecology (a holistic approach to farming that seeks to enhance the sustainability and resilience of agricultural ecosystems while promoting social justice and equity) to balance the priorities of climate, nature and healthy food production. 

In addition to this, WRAP’s Courtauld Commitment 2030 is a voluntary agreement that enables collaborative action across the entire UK food chain to deliver farm-to-fork reductions in food waste, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and water stress that will help the UK food and drink sector achieve global environmental goals. 

What changes can we make to our food systems? 

Planet Tracker identified six key areas of focus to support the transformation of global food systems:

  1. Improved traceability in supply chains: If we don’t know the carbon impact of our food or the amount of food waste generated for example, we won’t be able to drive change. This is where environmental impact software such as Foodprint can play a role, making it easier for businesses to assess their footprint. 
  2. Minimising food waste: If we’re to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals target of halving food waste by 2030, more investment is required to identify where food is being wasted, and to educate farmers, retailers, hospitality and consumers on how to minimise this. 
  3. Stopping deforestation: With forests as a vital part of carbon sequestration, the report called for an immediate stop of deforestation and for major investors to formally pledge against any deforestation risk in their holdings.
  4. Goodbye methane: Reducing methane was identified as a priority for agriculture. This would need to go hand in hand with reducing the public’s consumption of meat and dairy products and switching to more sustainable farming models. 
  5. A move towards alternative proteins: Exploring different forms of proteins was therefore another suggested focus.  
  6. Regenerative farming: The final recommendation was encouraging and putting more investment into regenerative farming, aiming to improve the health of soil and moving away from intensive farming. With the World Economic Forum reporting that there may not be enough soil left to grow food to feed the world within 50 years, this is clearly an area that can’t be overlooked. 

Transforming both the UK and global food systems is certainly not an overnight task and will require collaboration between governments, farming unions and organisations, as well as further education for the general public around the importance of sustainable farming and nutritional food. 

While there is much to do, there are also many reasons to remain positive from a UK perspective, including the growing interest in local and sustainable food, the availability of a diverse range of cuisines, and the increased presence of many organisations working to address food-related challenges. 

For hospitality businesses – it’s now more vital than ever to know the background of the ingredients you source to be confident you’re backing sustainable farming methods and supporting the long-term health of our complex food system.