'Resource-smart' food system needs less meat and fewer ultra-processed foods

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Agriculture Biodiversity

'Resource-smart' food system needs less meat and fewer ultra-processed foods
A tax on meat and stricter rules on marketing of cheap products that contain “empty calories” are needed as part of a major overhaul of the global food system, according to a report by the International Resource Panel.

“Current food systems are not delivering food security and healthy food for everyone nor are they sustainably using the limited natural resource inputs,”​ (IRP) noted in its 164 page assessment​ entitled Food Systems and Natural Resources​.

The IRP, which comprises 34 top scientists and 30 governments, called for a “resource-smart​” food system that will change the way food is grown, harvested, processed, traded, transported, stored, sold and consumed. 

It’s time for a major overhaul, the group said, as it pulled together evidence showing that global food systems are responsible for 60% of terrestrial biodiversity loss; account for around 24% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and have caused the overfishing of 29% of commercial fish populations.

Cheap but costly

Reducing food waste and reconnecting consumers with how their food is produced are two of a dozen actions put forward. The IRP also wants more food companies to pay farmers and fishermen for better management of natural resources – as some are already are through commodity certification schemes.

More controversially, the IRP also wants to see a reduction in the intake of meat and ultra-processed foods that are cheap to make but bring disproportionate environmental costs and [] undermine public health due to obesity-related diseases”.

Consumption of soft drinks, alcoholic beverages and bottled water that have “generally low nutritional value but a high resource use”​ should also be reduced.

High consumption of these products is partly driven by food companies influencing demand towards products with attractive profit margins, the authors explained. “The current business logic of many food systems does not always give actors the right incentives to promote more sustainable practices,”​ they said.

Less sexy meat tax

The report suggests a number of actions that governments could take to help deliver sustainable food solutions. These include the adoption of consumption-oriented policies, including “stricter marketing rules for unhealthy food” ​and the creation of a food environment that “stimulates healthy and sustainable diets”.

But the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported​ that lead author Professor Maarten Hajer is also pushing for a tax on meat. And though it might be “sexier​” to do this at the consumer level, the levy would be more effective if it were applied further up the supply chain, he explained. This would be similar to the approach taken by the UK Government in its proposed levy on sugar-sweetened drinks.

A survey of global consumers carried out by UK-based think-tank Chatham House in November last year discovered that a carbon tax on meat isn’t a complete turn off​. However, people were more positive about the removal of subsidies for livestock farmers than a tax at store level.

Globally, chicken meat and dairy consumption are expected to increase by 20% over the next 10 years while the consumption of pig meat and beef is also projected to increase, both by around 14%, according to data reviewed in the IRP report.

Businesses, for their part, will need to innovate, providing better alternatives to meat. Food companies “have a key role in reducing food waste [] as well as in making healthy and sustainable food choices easier for consumers,”​ the authors noted.



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