Tag Archives: Tim Lang

Sustainable diets: Interview with Dr Pamela Mason and Professor Tim Lang

Sustainable diets: Interview with Dr Pamela Mason and Professor Tim Lang
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News blog
30 April 2018

Last year public health nutritionist Dr Pamela Mason and Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City University of London, published their book Sustainable Diets: How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System with Routledge.

After reviewing the book for Peace News, Ian Sinclair asked the two researchers what they mean by sustainable diets, what role veganism can play, and what concerned people can do to quicken the transformation to a sustainable food system.

Ian Sinclair: What is your definition of a sustainable diet?

Pamela Mason and Tim Lang: A sustainable diet has often focused on a diet that is protective for the planet, particularly for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs). Given that food systems account for 25-30% of GHGEs, this is an essential consideration for sustainable diets, but we believe that a sustainable diet should be defined more broadly to include public health, cultural acceptability, accessibility, safe and affordable food, and the health and welfare of all who work in the food system. We are in agreement with the definition of the FAO and Bioversity (2010) which defined sustainable diets more broadly than nutrition + environment (or calories + carbon), as “Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources”.

IS: You note that standard Western diets are far from sustainable – causing obesity and non-communicable diseases, with the rich world “eating as though there are multiple planets”. How do our diets in the West need to change for them to become sustainable?

PM and TL: The main change required to make Western diets sustainable (and increasingly the diets of well-off people across the world) is to reduce meat intake. Livestock production is responsible for a third of all agriculture’s GHGEs and 70% of agricultural land use globally. Nearly half of global agricultural land is used for livestock feed production. Some 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are used for animal feed. Only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet as meat and other animal products so animals are relatively inefficient in terms of feeding people. In practical terms, a sustainable diet is therefore one based on plant foods (i.e., vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, beans and pulses and nuts) with animal foods (meat and dairy), if liked, consumed in small to moderate amounts. Although meat is a source of nutrients (e.g. iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein) in the human diet, these nutrients, with the possible exception of vitamin B12, can be obtained from plant foods. Meat is therefore not an essential component of the human diet. Fish is more difficult. Several authorities around the world, including the UK, specifically recommend the consumption of oily fish for reduction of cardiovascular risk due to its omega-3 fatty acid content, which is problematic when 80-85% of global fish stocks are fragile. Moreover, fish is an important source of income and indeed of protein in some small communities throughout the world. Of note is that some specific communities such as Seventh Day Adventists and also people who choose to follow a vegan diet and consume no fish enjoy good cardiovascular health.

IS: Many people see a vegan diet as the best diet in terms of climate change, the environment, human health and animal welfare/rights. However, in the book you note a vegan diet may not be sustainable. Why?

PM and TL: Compared with a traditional Western meat containing diet, a vegan diet containing no animal food is associated with reduced GHGEs, reduced land use and reduced water use. However, a vegan diet that simply contains no animal food is not necessarily healthy in that a vegan diet could focus on foods such as white bread, jam and chips.  It is important to distinguish between a healthy vegan diet or a healthy plant-based diet as being one which focuses on whole unprocessed foods, including vegetables, fruit, grains and pulses.

In terms of environmental and socio-economic impact, vegan diets are not necessarily 100% good news. This is a highly complex picture. Processed vegan foods may, for example, contain palm oil, which is associated with deforestation. It is not clear the extent to which ‘certified’ palm oil reduces deforestation. However, use of olive oil and sunflower oil require much more land to produce than palm oil. Workers producing coconut oil are often paid abysmally. Replacing meat with processed soya foods such as tofu and also Quorn would, with current practices, require large amounts of land to be used overseas. Some plant-based milks like almond milk require large amounts of water in their production and are to some extent nutritionally inferior to dairy milk. A vegan diet could potentially be all fruit, likely containing lots of tropical fruit, some of which again requires a lot of water in its production. People growing avocados in Mexico cannot afford to eat them any more as they are grown on a mass scale for Western consumers, with a similar situation existing for growers of quinoa in Bolivia and Peru.

A healthy sustainable vegan diet will likely depend on increasing the use of British grown field crops, such as root vegetables and brassicas as well as orchard fruits. Some pulses, beans and seeds (quinoa, lentils, peas, fava beans, haricot beans, flax) are increasingly grown in the UK and their use would reduce the use of water in water thirsty regions of the world. Soya beans can be grown in the UK too.

IS: A shift to sustainable diets seems to be a win-win – better for people’s health and for the environment. However, we are still very far from achieving this. Who or what is impeding the move to a sustainable food system?

PM and TL: Policy makers are not significantly engaging with the need for diets to become more sustainable. Partly this is due to a fear of consumers and the mantra of consumer choice. To recommend dietary change is not something that policy makers (with some exceptions) want to do. Consumers are increasingly interested in their diets, often from a health perspective, but also in terms of animal welfare, sustainable fish and to some extent from an environmental perspective. However, dietary advice is often confusing and consumers may not be clear on how they could best be eating for their own health and that of the planet. Marketing of less healthy foods high in fat and sugar and salt at the expense of healthier foods adds to consumer confusion. The food industry may resist change as it may compromise their bottom line, although some companies acknowledge the need for change because of growing consumer interest and concern that unless they make production changes ingredient availability may become fragile due to climate change, lack of water and so on.

What is needed to contribute to dietary change is for every country to develop Sustainable Dietary Guidelines with leadership and commitment from government, usually the Ministry (or Department) of Health. Such guidelines would provide a steer to both consumers and food producers. If consumers began to choose more sustainable diets, this would send a signal to food producers leading to a more sustainable food production. In short, we need sustainable diets from sustainable food systems. It is not an either/or but a both/and.

Some countries, notably Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Qatar and Brazil have produced Sustainable Dietary Guidelines, whilst others such as Australia and the United States have been thwarted in their attempts largely by private sector interests. The UK’s dietary guidance is in the form of the Eatwell Guide, which was revised in 2016 with some mention of sustainability issues such as reducing red meat consumption, but it does not go far enough.

IS: What do you think are the most important actions concerned citizens can take to help quicken the transition to sustainable diets?

PM and TL: Actions that concerned citizens can take include making a dietary shift to a more plant based diet. This can be done gradually by, for example, reducing the amount of meat and increasing vegetables in composite recipes and aiming for one or more meat-free days or meals in the week. The advantages lie in terms of health and the environment and if the food is cooked from scratch in the home meals containing less meat can be cheaper. People need to gain confidence in changing methods of food preparation and food shopping. Our ‘meat and two veg’ meal culture needs to change to a ‘vegetable and grain with meat as a condiment’ approach and this can take time. Most dietitians, for example, acknowledge that dietary change is difficult, but if the whole household can get involved this helps enormously. It is also important to learn more about food, how it can be cooked and combined. Shop in places where there is a high proportion of fresh unprocessed foods and ask food retailers and producers how they produce their food (e.g. animal welfare, use of pesticides and so on). Eating together with family, friends, neighbours and community is also important as this usually contributes to enjoyment of food, learning more about it and sharing of ideas for action. Of note here are the Brazilian Sustainable Dietary Guidelines, which focus on food culture, highlighting where and how to shop for food and so on.

Concerned citizens can also form groups or join groups that are interested in issues related to food and consider lobbying town, city and county councils about issues such as land use, spaces for community vegetable growing projects and so on. Such food activist groups can also draw up strategies to help towns and cities move towards more sustainable diets and help everyone whatever their income to have access to a healthy sustainable diet. Organising food events can also highlight sustainability issues in an area, highlight local supply chains and availability of vegetables and fruits (or lack of them) and can help to develop skills in food knowledge and food preparation.

Book review: Sustainable Diets by Pamela Mason and Tim Lang

Book review: Sustainable Diets. How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System by Pamela Mason and Tim Lang
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April-May 2018

Far from being simply a personal choice, our diet is deeply political.

As Dr Pamela Mason and Professor Tim Lang explain, the spread of the standard Western diet has had devastating consequences for people and the planet. Worldwide, obesity has nearly doubled since 1980, with poor dietary patterns the greatest contribution to non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in rich nations. “North America and Europe consume biological resources as though they inhabit multiple planets”, the authors note. The US consumes as though it inhabits five planets, Europe three.

In response, they propose the widespread adoption of sustainable diets which are able “to feed huge populations equitably, healthily and in ways that maintains the ecosystems on which humanity depends.”

In pursuit of this goal Mason and Lang have written an academic book chockful with summaries of the latest research, complete with a massive number of references. Their citing of journal articles, reports and policy documents is often relentless but there is lots of eye-opening facts to discover for readers who persevere. For example, they note the carbon footprint of the huge amount of global food waste means it ranks as the third top greenhouse gas emitter after the US and China. Elsewhere, citing a Defra-commissioned study, they explain that tomatoes grown in Spain and transported to the UK have a smaller environmental footprint than those grown in heated houses in the UK.

If sustainability is to be achieved, the evidence overwhelmingly shows rich populations need to significantly reduce the amount of meat and dairy in their diet, and increase the level of plant foods. This is a “win-win”, as a food researcher Laura Wellesley from Chatham House has explained, because plant-based diets tend to both healthier and associated with lower environmental impacts.

However, Mason and Lang do not automatically endorse a vegan diet as the solution, citing nutritional issues and its lack of social acceptance. Arguably this position inadvertently highlights a limitation of their thesis – while ‘animal welfare’ is included in their definition of sustainability, the right of animals not to be eaten by humans is not.

With a transition to sustainable diets indispensable to keeping global temperatures below 2OC, “the challenge remains awesome”, they note. And though they support long-term, interdisciplinary systems thinking, they do not seriously consider the role grassroots activists might play.

Surely set to become a core text, Sustainable Diets is a brilliant resource for those who want to be fully informed on this hugely important topic

Sustainable Diets is published by Routledge, priced £32. 

Can in-vitro meat save the world?

Can in-vitro meat save the world?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 September 2013

“£200,000 test-tube burger marks milestone in future meat-eating”, proclaimed The Guardian. “Could in-vitro meat save the world?”, asked Bioedge, a website dedicated to bioethical issues. The answer could well be yes, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who said “It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer.”

The August launch of lab-bred ‘meat’ in London was, according to Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University in London, “a masterly act of timing, theatre, and media management.”

“Considerable scepticism is required”, Lang warned.

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and author of 1975’s seminal Animal Liberation, clearly didn’t get the memo. Writing in the Guardian, Singer lauded the first public tasting of Dr Mark Post’s in-vitro beefburger as an “historic event” which, although he hadn’t eaten meat for 40 years, had convinced him to try in-vitro meat should it become commercially available. Singer’s decision was based on two reasons: To reduce animal suffering and to help the environment. “Using meat from animals, especially ruminants, is heating the planet and contributing to a future in which hundreds of millions of people become climate refugees”, Singer said. In contrast “In vitro meat won’t belch or fart methane. Nor will it defecate, and as a result, the vast cesspools that intensive farms require to handle manure will become unnecessary.”

Two inconvenient facts suggest Singer’s enthusiasm is pie-in-the-sky thinking. Firstly, production costs for the test tube beefburger are currently running at over £200,000 – funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, as it happens. This astronomical cost means it will likely take years to produce it on a commercially viable level – up to 20 years according to Post, a timeline the Associate Editor for environment and energy at Scientific American magazine calls “optimistic”.

The problem is we simply haven’t got 20 years to save the planet from climate catastrophe. Rather the New Economics Foundation stated in 2008 we had just 100 months to stop “runaway climate change.” Organisations as diverse as the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency have all confirmed the prognosis is dire and requires immediate, radical action. So, to be clear, in terms of helping to combat climate change in-vitro meat will likely be of no help during the period when action is needed most – within the next five years.

Even worse than Singer’s support of a technological fix to what is an acute political problem for which solutions already exist, his salivating over beefburgers arguably perpetuates, rather than questions, our cultural obsession with meat. As one of my university lecturers, Professor Sarah Churchwell, once noted in a seminar “representation without criticism equals endorsement”. Apologies, Sarah, if I’ve misquoted you. By so publicly championing in-vitro meat Singer’s article reinforces the popular idea that meat, especially beef, is intrinsically desirable – a high-value luxury food that represents wealth and social advancement.

By buying into the dominant cultural-historic ideology that makes meat eating so attractive to so many, Singer’s PR-like article is arguably damaging in two ways: in terms of individual health and the relationship between meat and climate change – the very reason he says he supports in-vitro meat.

On the first point, Singer, and all of the coverage of in-vitro meat that I have seen, ignores the negative health impacts of eating red and processed meat. As Denis Campbell, the Guardian’s Health Correspondent, noted in March 2013 “The evidence implicating processed and/or red meat… in illness has been building up in recent years” with the World Cancer Research Fund recommending “shunning processed meat completely” since 2007. Campbell concluded his article making the startling claim that “Privately, some experts and health campaigners admit that only the fear of being seen as completely out of touch prevents them from agreeing publicly with the WCRF… they preach moderation, not abstinence, for pragmatic reasons.” As I argue above, even if in-vitro meat is able to be produced without the cancer-causing properties of red meat – and that’s an important if – its championing and production still reinforces the idea that meat is a desirable, high-value food – and thus does nothing to challenge the high-level of consumption of red and processed meat and its attendant negative health effects.

Secondly, as Singer mentioned in his article, meat-eating is a significant contributor to climate change. In 2006 the UN Food and Agricultural Organization named livestock as a “major player” in affecting climate change, estimating it generated 18 percent of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally. To reduce this impact experts such as Lord Nicholas Stern and the Chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Rajendra Pachauri recommend a reduction in meat consumption and dairy products – a vegan or nearly vegetarian diet, basically.

This reduction would also give us a good chance of meeting the nutrition requirements of the earth’s increasing population and be effective in addressing the looming water crisis. On the former, it is important to remember the well-known truism that there is already enough food to feed the world’s population. One in eight people around the globe does not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life because of many factors including war, natural disasters, poverty, agricultural infrastructure, environmental degradation and economics factors such as supply, access and affordability, not because they can’t buy a test-tube beefburger.

The Guardian’s coverage of the launch agreed “The best way to prevent this environmental damage… would be if everyone could be persuaded to eat less meat”. However, it went on to assert that “no one thinks that will happen – the desire to eat meat is ingrained deep in our evolution, according to Harvard University primatologist Prof Richard Wrangham.”

The Guardian’s conservative framing is both unrealistic and unhelpful. Because while it is unlikely that everyone will be persuaded to eat less meat anytime soon, studies show many people in the West have been reducing their consumption of meat and red meat specifically – for both health and environmental reasons. So it can be done. And again the question must be asked: Does the focus on in-vitro meat help or hinder the move to significantly reduce meat consumption and move to the vegetarian or vegan diet the world so desperately needs?

The media circus that surrounded the first public tasting of in-vitro meat clouds the fact it is, at best, irrelevant to combating the interconnected problems of climate change and the global food and water crises. At worst it is a red herring that makes it more difficult for us to see our problems clearly and act in an appropriate and timely manner. Like with GM foods, fracking and nuclear power we are being encouraged to look to and support a technological fix to a problem that we already have the technology to overcome. I’m not, I should note, against continuing research and development of in-vitro meat. One day it may well play a positive dietary role. What I am is sceptical of is a corporate-funded technology which makes big claims about saving the world when possible solutions already exist.

What is missing from the media hoopla, of course, is the kind of political analysis that understands fixing problems of this scale requires political will, otherwise known as popular pressure, and political solutions – a process that in-vitro meat will be largely irrelevant to.

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
November 2013

The UK has a growing obesity problem. According to the annual Health Survey for England in 1980 6 per cent of men were obese – that is they had a Body Mass Index of over 30. By 1993 this had more than doubled to 13.2 per cent and by 2011 23.6 per cent of men were obese. The medical problems associated with obesity are well known – Type 2 Diabetes, Coronary Heart Disease, hypertension, respiratory problems, stroke and certain cancers. The Government’s 2007 landmark Foresight report estimates that by 2050 obesity and being overweight could cost the NHS £9.7 billion, with the wider cost to society estimated at £49.9 billion.

So who or what is to blame for the rise in obesity? “Ultimately it comes down to will”, argued Eastern Daily Press columnist Steve Downes recently. “What can society do to change people’s habits? Nothing, really.” You might expect the author of the best-selling memoir My Mad Fat Teenage Diary to have a wider lens of analysis. If so you’d be wrong. Writing in The Guardian last month Rae Earl noted people are often obese because of “deep-rooted psychological factors.” As adults, Earl concluded, “our weight is our personal responsibility.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on Downes and Earl – they are simply repeating popular arguments that blame obesity on the individual. As a 2010 article in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs explains “studies demonstrate repeatedly that judgments about obesity are linked to values of individualism, self-determination, political conservativism, and secular morality.”

There are many problems with focussing on individual behaviour when discussing obesity. First, a culture that points the finger at individuals can stigmatise, leading to bullying, discrimination and mental health problems such as depression. Research shows overweight patients sometimes delay visiting the doctor because of fear of embarrassment or judgment. Second, blaming personal choices does not help to explain obesity levels when one considers obesity has substantially increased since the 1970s and its prevalence differs considerably across national borders and social classes.

As the Foresight report notes “People in the UK today don’t have less willpower and are not more glutoness than previous generations.” And, I would add, British people are not lazier than many of their less obese European neighbours, and middle-class people do not take more personal responsibility than generally heavier working-class people. Discussing the Foresight report, the former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government Sir David King notes “individuals have much less choice in the matter of their weight than they would assume”. This is especially true for the poorest members of society, who tend to have much less control and choice over how they live their lives. So rather than obesity being down to personal willpower the Foresight report explains society “has radically altered over the past five decades with major changes in work patterns, transport, food production and food sales.” These changes have resulted in what experts call an “obesogenic environment”, where the political and economic structures of society end up actually encouraging obesity among the population

Some of these societal shifts include: a huge increase in the availability and affordability of calorie-dense but nutrient-poor processed foods; an increase in private car use and a corresponding decrease in the level of cycling and walking; the selling off of school playing fields; a lax planning system that has led to out-of-town supermarkets and fast food outlets being placed close to schools; healthy food ‘deserts’ in poor areas. In addition there has been a massive increase in the level of food advertising. With the UK having the dubious distinction of being the advertising capital of Europe, Food Analyst Cindy van Rijswick notes “the impact of promotions, advertising and marketing from the processed food industry is higher than in other countries.”

Arguably, many of these causes can be traced back to the neoliberal turn the country took with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the pro-business and individualistic rhetoric and policies that followed. In a letter to The Guardian earlier this year, the Secretary of The Equality Trust explained that research “shows more people are obese in more unequal countries”. And sure enough the US, UK and Australia – arguably the three Western nations where the grip of neoliberal thinking is strongest – have some of the highest levels of obesity in the Western world.

If an individualistic analysis can’t explain the rise in obesity, it’s unlikely to be useful in solving the problem either. In fact personalising the problem makes solving the crisis harder, according to Dr Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University: “As long as we have this belief that obese people are lazy and lacking in discipline, it will be hard to get support for policies that change the environment, which are likely to have a much larger impact than trying to change individuals”.

So if the rise in obesity is due to a wholesale transformation of society, then the solutions will also have to be on the same scale – led by strong government action. Radically changing the transport system so it discourages private car use and builds infrastructure to encourage cycling and walking would be a first step. The planning system needs to be altered so it encourages health living, rather than working to maximise profits for the food industry. Advertising of unhealthy foods, especially to children, needs to be highly regulated as it is in Sweden where TV advertising aimed at children under 12 has been banned since 1991. And taxes could be levelled on unhealthy foods, as Mexico is about to do.

All this, of course, would require the Government to take on corporate power. However, Professor Tim Lang and Dr Geof Rayner from the Centre for Food Policy at City University point out “there is a powerful temptation in Government to limit actions to a choice-based, personalization approach, in part because this style of intervention is aligned to the commercial sector’s own customer management and marketing methods.”

Indeed corporate influence on Government policy is so great that in 2010 The Guardian made the eye-popping revelation that “The Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald’s and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity.”

“Either you have democracy or you have private power – you can’t have both”, wrote Robert Newman in his 2003 novel The Fountain At The Centre Of The World. I’d like to amend Newman’s wise words in terms of obesity: Either you have a healthy population or you have private power – you can’t have both.