The pace of scale and change needed to revolutionise the food system is lightning speed. That’s recognised by the rightful place for food systems on the agenda for COP28, which kicks off in Dubai next week. The way that food is produced and consumed has a leading role to play in our nutrition security, public health and a net zero future.
What we eat, at least in the UK context, has become the biggest risk factor for preventable disease. We are experiencing a deepening public health crisis, and the cost of living crisis is exacerbating diet-related inequalities.
Undernutrition and obesity coexisting in the UK is a stark reminder of the failures in our food system. Experts point to lack of quality food as a risk factor for both undernutrition and obesity.
The problem doesn’t stop there. Poor diets are sucking money out of the economy through vast NHS spend on diet-related health impacts and workforce inactivity. It’s estimated the costs of obesity to UK society are a staggering £58bn, or around 3% of GDP.
Meanwhile, the health of our planet is inextricably connected with our own. Alongside poor health, our consumption patterns are destroying the very systems we rely on to produce food, and keep us nutrition-secure with a stable climate, rich soils, clean waterways, and marine ecosystems. Our food system is responsible for around 30% of greenhouse gas emissions.
It is no coincidence the COP28 presidency has dedicated the day of 10 December to food systems. Urgent action to shift diets in the UK is needed if we are to achieve net zero by 2050 and limit global warming, as well as deal with the headwinds of a deepening public health crisis.
Shifting diets as a critical enabler of food systems change is a win-win scenario - with the potential to prevent up to 24% of unnecessary deaths globally and bring co-benefits for the planet. The International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) has stated diet shift has the potential to deliver ‘gigatonne-scale’ emissions reductions.
In the UK, shifting diets is complex and not just a question of winning hearts and minds. It relies on changing food environments that currently trap people into eating in a way that is both harmful to their health and the health of the planet.
Our increasingly unfair and unhealthy food system has far-reaching consequences for the health of people and the planet, and our economic prosperity. While specific issues are varied and complex, for the first time at COP28, diet shift has the potential to be recognised as one of the sharpest tools in the box to unlock positive change.