A food system fit for a zero carbon future

A food system fit for a zero carbon future

Home » A food system fit for a zero carbon future

Can you imagine a future where our diets are healthier, more varied and sustainable?

Reforming our high carbon, low quality food system will be a complex challenge, but it is possible. Here are a selection of ideas on how we can create a better food system that’s not only healthier for us all, but is compatible with a zero carbon future.

This is the first in a series of articles drawn from CAT’s new report, Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen. Over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing with you 100 good ideas from the report.


The state of the system: where we are now



The current food system is failing to support our health, climate and food security. Our diets are based on cheap, calorie-rich and nutrient-poor foods. Only 30% of adults in the UK are eating five fruit and vegetable portions a day, and this number is falling, especially in young people. Our high consumption of processed foods and red meat leads to poorer health, as well as higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. [sources 1–6]

About 10% of the UK’s GHGs come from farming, and agriculture is responsible for a high proportion of emissions of two of the most potent GHGs: nitrous oxide and methane. When imported food is taken into account, the emissions of our diets is far greater: only 23% of the fruits and vegetables, and 54% of all food we eat is produced in this country. [6–7]


Palm oil (found in many processed foods) plantation in Indonesia, photo: Rainforest Action Network


Declining soil health threatens the agricultural production capacity of the UK, which is already very intensive. Our food system is made of complex supply chains that are increasingly opaque and hidden from public view. The system produces vast amounts of waste and fails to distribute produce equitably: in Europe, just over 30% of all food produce is wasted. Globally, one billion people suffer from under-nutrition whilst another one billion people are overweight. [6, 8–11]


10 ideas to make change happen

Previous Zero Carbon Britain research shows that a fairer, healthier, zero carbon food system is technically possible. In a new report Making it Happen, CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain team considers the social and political barriers to change, and explores the many ways we can overcome them. Here are some of the best ideas the research team came across.


1. Support projects and campaigns aiming to reduce food waste

FoodRecylcingThere are many campaign organisations that are currently raising awareness of food waste, for example Feeding the 5000, This is Rubbish, Love Food Hate Waste and Fareshare. The Real Junk Food Project is a global organic network of pay-as-you-feel cafés that divert food destined for waste.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also created the campaign ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight’ which brought attention to the amount of fish being wasted in the North Sea due to quota systems. This campaign was successful in getting the policy on fish quotas changed.


2. Cross-sector commitments to reduce waste

The UK government’s food waste charity, WRAP, co-ordinates a voluntary agreement between retailers, manufacturers and local authorities to move towards zero waste. Between 2010–12, this project saved 1.7 million tonnes of food, drink, packaging and supply chain waste.


3. Food waste recycling by local authorities

In Scotland local authorities are required to offer a food waste recycling service to households, which is increasing the amount of food waste being recycled (3MB pdf), mainly at anaerobic digestion plants.


4. Promote incremental steps to reduce meat consumption

To create a zero carbon diet we’ll need to eat less meat and more fruit, vegetable, pulses and complex carbohydrates. The Meat Free Monday public awareness campaign encourages people to dedicate a day of the week to plant-based eating, and Eating Better’s Meat Free Lunch campaign, promoting a meat-free meal each day and encouraging sandwich retailers to offer more meat free options.


5. Grow beans in Britain

Plant-based diets also usually contain larger amounts of pulses such as chickpeas and lentils, many of which are not commonly grown in this country. There are certain companies however, such as Hodmedod’s, which grow fava beans and quinoa and have plans to widen their range of British grown beans.


6. Create simple ‘rule of thumb’ guidelines to help people make more sustainable choices

vegEncouraging people in the UK to choose root vegetables and vegetables that can be ‘field grown’, such as carrots and parsnips, is a simple way of increasing the consumption of UK-grown veg.

Fruits and vegetables that are shipped to the UK or transported by road have much lower associated emissions than those that are flown in, so it is not always distance that dictates whether associated emissions will be high or low [12]. A good rule of thumb here is that foods that have been grown overseas and spoil easily, such as berries, are likely to have been flown here to ensure a quick arrival to supermarket shelves.


7. Tackle junk food advertising

There’s growing pressure for a ban on junk food advertising before 9pm. While restrictions on advertising for products high in sugar, salt or fat during children’s programmes were implemented in 2009, the proportion of junk food ads seen by children actually increased slightly as children viewed them during family viewing.


8. Co-operation between cities

Local governments, and especially cities, are well-placed to drive change and to co-operate with other cities taking similar action [13]. The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, signed by 100 other mayors, is a network of cities developing and implementing sustainable food systems.


9. Government guidelines could set high sustainability standards

The government could impose sustainability guidelines for school meals and for menus in hospitals and council offices. It could also introduce regulatory mechanisms on the food industry to make reaching sustainability targets more of a priority. [2, 14]

Free range chickens, photo: Compassion in World Farming


10. Support a sustainable food system through taxation and subsidies.

Instead of subsidising high-carbon foods such as lamb and beef, subsidies could be provided for lower emission crops such as fruits and vegetables, and for animals reared to high welfare standards. Taxes could be increased for junk foods, meat and dairy products, and fertilizers and pesticides. The money raised from such taxes could be used in improving nutrition, education, public health and exercise programmes. [2, 15–16]


Making it happen

To transform our food system — as well as our transport, buildings and energy systems — we will need to act together to scale up all these campaigns and projects, and many more.

The new Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen report explores how we can overcome the social and political barriers preventing society reaching zero carbon:

“We must join up research and action across disciplines, borders and scales and link research to real life projects. It will take many of us pulling in the same direction to enable change to happen, and each and every one of our actions can contribute to making a zero carbon future happen.” — p. 268

ZCBThe report also considers some of the psychological and social levers that can help facilitate widespread change.

You can download the full Making it Happen report here, including a vision of a zero carbon future for our food system on p. 16. For more details on Zero Carbon Britain’s models for a zero carbon food system, take a look at our 2013 report, Rethinking the Future.

The Zero Carbon Britain team hope that Making it Happen will help catalyse valuable conversations about further research, and how individuals and organisations can work together to help make a zero carbon future a reality.


1. Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen, pp. 38–44

2. Cumberlege, T. et al. (2015) The Case for Protein Diversity: Accelerating the adoption of more sustainable eating patterns in the UK. The Carbon Trust: London, UK.

3. Bates, B. et al. (2014) National Diet and Nutrition Survey: Results from Years 1, 2, 3 and 4 (combined) of the Rolling Programme (2008/2009–2011/2012). Public Health England: London, UK.

4. HSCIC (2015) Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet. Health and Social Care Information Centre: UK.

5. Bouvard, V. et al. (2015) Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. The Lancet Oncology, 16, pp. 1599–1600.

6. DEFRA (2015a) Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2015. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: UK.

7. DEFRA (2015b) Food Statistics Pocketbook 2015. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: UK.

8. Rӧӧs, E. et al. (2016) Protein futures for Western Europe: potential land use and climate impacts in 2050. Regional Environmental Change, pp. 1–11.

9. Food Research Collaboration (2014) Square Meal: Why we need a new recipe for the future. Food Research Collaboration: UK.

10. UNFAO (2013) The State of Food and Agriculture 2013. UNFAO.

11. Alexandratos, N. and Bruinsma, J. (2012) World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: The 2012 Revision. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Italy.

12. Garnett, T. (2006) Fruit and Vegetables & UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Exploring the Relationship. Food Climate Research Network. Centre for Environmental Strategy: UK.

13. Arup (2015) Powering Climate Action: Cities as Global Changemakers.

14. Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen, p. 251

15. Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen, p. 16

16. Cafaro, P. et al. (2006) The Fat of the Land: Linking American food overconsumption, obesity and biodiversity loss. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 19, pp. 541–61.