Making food matter key to more sustainable diets

Take the SRA President, one of the UK’s most eminent and best known scientists, an executive from a major drinks producer and a major policy expert, and what do you get? A very lively debate about how to put sustainable diets at the top of the menu.

A packed conference theatre at ExCeL was the venue as the BBC’s Sarah Montague chaired the panel session at Food Matters Live with guests Raymond Blanc, Lord Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College, Sue Garfitt, Commercial Director of Alpro and Alexandre Maybeck, Senior Policy Officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Maybeck was quick to hit the audience right between the eyes with a barrage of terrifying global statistics, establishing in no uncertain terms the urgent need for more sustainable diets, concluding that the current system doesn’t work and will only get worse unless we switch to sustainable diets.

But Robert Winston took us back in time to provide a fascinating historical, scientific explanation for why there are now 2 billion people either overweight or obese globally. Go back 100,000 years to the savannah where man needed huge amounts of energy to survive – fight or flight. While our lives have changed immeasurably, our dietary genetics have not.

That doesn’t mean we’re on a one-way trip to obesity meltdown though, as environmental factors can play a significant role, he added. That’s where food producers and chefs come in. Sue Garfitt said that Alpro’s growth in the alternative milk market was down to a three-pronged approach:

  1. Making healthier, sustainable products more widely available
  2. Ensuring they taste great
  3. Communicating their positive impact better

Raymond said chefs had a responsibility to share their knowledge and passion for seasonal, responsibly produced food at every opportunity – on their menus, websites, in recipes and on social media. He and Lord Winston wholeheartedly agreed that education, in the widest sense, was critical to the success of shifting us towards more sustainable diets. Winston said we should catch children while their brains are at their most plastic, or receptive, at primary school to educate them, while Raymond stressed the need to instil basic cooking skills into the next generation. “If we all knew how to cook, we really could go far.” That way we would all be more connected with our food.

And, as Alexandre said, the more closely connected to our food we feel, the less likely we are to waste it and the better choices people make. “The reason why are we having to debate these things now, is because we forget that food matters and we need to tell the story of food and the people that produce it to keep reminding people that food really does matter.” And therein lies the most significant point on which the whole panel was agreed – that it is everyone’s responsibility to inspire consumers to understand that food matters.


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