The UK-arm of the initiative is being coordinated by Oxford University Professor Charles Godfray, who will look at the environmental and health impacts of animal derived food, focusing mainly in the UK.
The project is not yet in place, meaning details are sketchy, but according to reports in The Guardian, Sainsbury's participation could include placing vegetarian alternatives in the meat aisle; giving vouchers and loyalty points to shoppers who buy vegetarian products; and providing recipes and leaflets that advise on how to cut down meat consumption.
Who is involved in the project?
The Future of Food (Oxford Martin)
The International Food Policy Research Institute
The Nature Conservancy
The Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS)
The project organisers are still hoping to attract interest from other food industry players.
This has provoked the anger of the UK's National Farmers Union (NFU). Board chairman for livestock Charles Sercombe said: “The NFU has major concerns over the anti-meat agenda that Sainsbury’s is pursuing in its recent involvement with in-store trials attempting to change customer buying habits. The trials are based on analysis from Oxford academics on the impacts of eating meat on climate change and public health – analysis the NFU firmly contests.”
Sercombe said many farmers have worked with Sainsbury’s closely to reduce their carbon footprints, and that livestock farmers had committed to reducing climate change through a Greenhouse Gas Action Plan, coordinated by the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, of which the NFU is a member.
“We are seeking urgent talks with Sainsbury’s to ensure all British produce can have pride of place on their shelves for customers to make up their own mind about what they buy.”
However, a Sainsbury’s spokesperson said the NFU had “clearly misunderstood” the purpose of the research. “We can reassure them that we are not anti-meat in any way. We recognise that our customers have a wide range of dietary requirements.
“The research will examine how we can encourage long term sustainable and healthy eating habits. This does not exclude meat and we are pleased to clear up any confusion."
“We are seeing an increasing number of customers choose to have meat free days as part of a ‘flexitarian’ diet, and choose dairy alternatives,” the spokesperson said. “But for many this will be a short term trend. Through this research with Oxford University, we are looking at how we can help customers make more informed choices and encourage long-term sustainable and healthy diets.”
Sainsbury’s already groups products according to category, meaning vegan cheese is located next to traditional dairy cheese, and it runs promotions on products across the range. Its UK website currently has 24 dairy-free alternatives such as soy drinks on special offer, including its own private label range and branded products from Alpro and Arla.
A more sustainable food system
Professor of diet and population health at Oxford University, Susan Jebb, confirmed that Sainsbury’s – the only retailer formally linked with the project so far – would provide expertise on consumer behaviour and an environment in which to conduct intervention studies - although specific details regarding these studies have not yet been decided.
“Part of this may well include a look at vegetarian alternatives, but we will also be examining more general plant-based diets,” she told FoodNavigator.
“The goal is to conduct research which supports the transition to a healthier and more sustainable food system. Modelling of the health and environmental consequences of food which has already been conducted shows that diets containing less meat are likely to be an important component of this change and will be the focus of this particular research programme."
Global charity Wellcome will provide a total of £29 million (€34m) to the project which includes four different research projects to promote healthy, sustainable food systems.
All results will be published in scientific journals.