A group of organisations representing professionals across Britain’s health care sector have called for the UK government to tax foods that have an damaging impact on the environment by 2025 — unless the food industry takes action on its own.
The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change is a coalition of 10 health organisations including the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association, as well as the medical journal the Lancet.
In their latest report, entitled “All Consuming: Building a Healthier Food System for People and Planet” and published on Nov. 4, argues that to tackle the climate crisis it is important to reduce consumption of foods that cause high amounts of carbon emissions.
At the same time, more sustainable diets, such as including more vegetables with meals and eating less meat and dairy, are better for human health.
The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change report concludes that while “most activity to mitigate climate change has focused on decarbonising energy and transport... it will be impossible to keep global temperatures at safe levels unless there is transformation in the way the world produces and consumes food.”
Food production and consumption makes up “over a quarter (26%) of total global greenhouse gas emissions”, it adds. Meanwhile, UK homes currently waste 7 million tonnes of food each year.
The report therefore suggests policies that address both public health and climate concerns — such as an end to “buy-one-get-one-free” offers for unhealthy food that is also bad for the environment, and on perishable food that often just ends up being wasted — are needed.
It also calls for more efforts to help the public understand the connection between the climate, the food system, and their own health: including ideas like public information campaigns on diet including climate-related messages, and for food labels to reveal environmental impact.
“Without clear point of sale information, consumers will not be able to make healthy and sustainable choices,” the report says.
In addition the group suggests that unless voluntary action is taken by the food industry by 2025, a “food carbon tax should be levied on all food producers according to the carbon footprint of their products.”
The health sector group also recommended that the government’s £2 billion annual spend on catering for schools, hospitals, care homes, and prisons should meet minimum environmental standards.
Animals and carbon emissions
The report is backed up by other previous findings. In 2019, for example, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that wealthier nations’ high consumption of meat and dairy is fuelling global warming.
Meanwhile an Oxford University study of global food production in 2018 revealed that meat and other animal products are responsible for more than half of food-related carbon emissions, despite providing only a fifth of the calories we eat and drink.
“We can’t reach our goals without addressing our food system,” Kristin Bash, who leads the Faculty of Public Health’s food group and was a co-author of the report told the Guardian. “The climate crisis isn’t something we should see as far in the future. It’s time to take these issues seriously now.”
The group also commissioned a YouGov poll of doctors, nurses, and other health workers that revealed health professionals are concerned about food and the climate.
Over two-thirds (68%) said they are concerned about the impact of society’s approach to food production and consumption on the environment; and 67% said changing your diet in a way that helps the environment (e.g. eating less meat) can also improve your health.
Two-fifths (40%) reported that they had themselves changed their eating habits due to environmental concerns.
The Lancet medical journal has called climate change “the greatest global health threat and opportunity of the 21st century”, the Alliance points out, saying that “diet is one key area in which changes can be made that simultaneously benefit the health of people and the planet.”