Six headings for food sustainability heaven

By Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, City University of London

There are three common reactions to the food sustainability challenge.

One is that it’s too complex. Cooking and serving food is hard enough without all this extra burden. Let Government or big suppliers sort things out first, and then we just might get involved.

The second is that consumers aren’t exactly pushing for it. It’s ok simply to offer a few vegetarian or vegan dishes on the menu and leave it to consumer choice, the market. Leave it as niche.

And the third is that it costs too much money. It’s another level of bureaucracy. There are enough problems keeping costs under control without this, too.

These are understandable but ultimately wrong, as members of the SRA well know. But they are positions we all encounter.  And let us face it, right now, to wait for Government to sort this out is probably silly. It’s up to its neck in the messiness and high politics of Brexit right now.

So do we twiddle our fingers, do nothing? Or keep doing whatever we have started, and say ‘well, I’m doing my bit’? Again, I have sympathy with that, but I think we can do better.

I am sure you know that a stark picture has emerged in the last 20 years about food and sustainability. Sober messages like: we have 12 years to lower our carbon footprint or the rise in planetary temperature by 2 degrees will be unstoppable. We have to get a grip of unnecessary ‘ultra-processed foods high in salt, fat, sugar. We’ve got to encourage plant-based diets, and reduce meat and dairy. Less meat but better.

This is complex. But do-able. Food is the single biggest factor in greenhouse gas emissions, in water use, in biodiversity loss, in health, and is the biggest employer on the planet. In short, we have to sort out the food system. Y(our) job is to contribute to that.

How to do this? Pamela Mason and I suggest in our Sustainable Diets book that it helps to use a 6 heading approach to sustainability. Whether you are chef, patron, menu planner, purchaser or waiter, we can all use this 6 heading approach to focus on (un)sustainability.

Figure 1 gives the quick overview. These are the six issues which have to be addressed by food: quality, health, environment, social values, economy and governance. Don’t address one or two. Address them all to deliver sustainability. Figure 2 gives them in more detail. This shows what each means. And how to break them down.


Fig 1 Sustainable Diets: the simple model


Fig 2 Sustainable Diets: the more detailed model


Take Quality. No chef or restaurateur would ever like to say they deliver worse quality. But what does that mean? And do we trade off worse quality for environmentally better or healthier food? No. The goal is to improve on all 6 headings.

Change, adapt and apply this 6 heading approach. But don’t delete any heading. Tackle them all.


TIM LANG is Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City University of London, and was the Raymond Blanc Food Sustainability Hero in the 2018 Food Made Good Awards. Sustainable Diets by Pamela Mason & Tim Lang is published by Routledge.

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