The environmental cost of the food we eat cannot be ignored

How will we start to square the competing demands of sustainability, price and nutrition?

December 07, 2022
© Illustration by Ian Morris
© Illustration by Ian Morris

According to some scientists, the Earth has entered a so-called “anthropocene age”; an epoch defined by the profound impact Homo sapiens is having on the earth’s climate, biodiversity and ecosystems. Unsustainable approaches to food production have driven many of these changes.

The UN estimates that livestock produce more than 14 per cent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions and the global food system is thought to use 70 per cent of freshwater on earth. The environmental impacts of feeding the global population could increase by up to 90 per cent between 2010 and 2050, assuming no action is taken to counteract expected changes in population and income.

Yet our diets aren’t just environmentally unsustainable, they are also contributing to public health crises like obesity. Adult obesity rates in England have roughly doubled since 1993 and most adults are now overweight or obese. This has contributed to an increase in diseases like diabetes, alongside associated costs: in 2014–15, the NHS spent more than £6bn tackling the direct consequences of obesity. 

The lion’s share of this collective weight gain can be attributed to the food we eat, which in turn is shaped by the food environments in which we find ourselves. Beyond obesity, the composition of our diets shapes our health in myriad other ways—such as the link between the red meat and bowel cancer.

The challenge of feeding ourselves in the future is not limited to the nutritional composition of our diets, it is also a question of cost. Spiralling food prices in the UK point to the increasing vulnerability of our food system to global economic shocks. In the recent past, consumers in this country paid some of the lowest prices for food anywhere in Europe. According to the National Food Strategy, chicken is nearly three times cheaper today than it was in the 1960s.

Over the last year fresh food inflation has rocketed to over 10 per cent, with huge consequences for consumers, particularly those in poverty. The Trussell Trust reported an 81 per cent increase in food parcels distributed by its food bank network in 2021–22, compared to the same period five years ago.

Adapting to the demands of the Anthropocene age will force dramatic changes to the way we grow and source our food. Policymakers will grapple with difficult trade-offs when seeking to regenerate ecosystems and rebalance diets without imposing ill-timed costs on consumers. Harnessing innovative approaches from technologists, farmers and industry will likely prove essential.

Pre-empting such questions, Thomasina Miers spotlights the role the public sector could play in boosting regenerative farming, while Marco Springmann looks to a future where we price in the environmental and health costs of food more transparently. For Christina Adane, it is essential to put young people in the driving seat when it comes to tackling the poor food environments that distort their diets.

This article first appeared in Minister for the future, a special report produced in association with Nesta.