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3 July 2021

Impact of Food on the Climate

Tag(s): Sustainability, Politics & Economics
I am a member of the Livery Climate Action Group in the City of London organised by Alderman Alison Gowman who was last week elected as one of the two Aldermanic Sheriffs who will take over later in September. The group met online this week to consider the impact of food on the climate. There were three excellent speakers with some time for questions at the end. Agriculture accounts for 10% of global greenhouse gases and there are many people who believe that will get worse unless significant changes are made in behaviours. Naturally, these behaviours are more developed in the so-called developed world.

The seminar was hosted by David Smith CBE, Master of the Cooks’ Livery Company. At one point he was a Director with the City Corporation where his responsibilities included management of the City’s three wholesale food markets (Billingsgate, New Spitalfields, and Smithfield) as well as the London Port Health Authority and Animal Health. He was one of the original members of the London Food Board and instrumental in the creation of the first London Food Strategy, which focused on the need to make fresh healthy food available to less well-off sections of the population so as to improve their diet and, consequently, their health. The Company and the Cooks Charity have also set up two dedicated funds to alleviate hardship caused by the Covid pandemic.

The first speaker was Richard Whitlock, Master of the Farmers Livery Company. Richard has worked in the farmer-facing agricultural merchanting sector for all of his career, specialising in the trading of combinable crops in UK and overseas markets. He has headed up the trading desk for large corporates and initiated a 1 million tonne wheat supply agreement for bioethanol. He retains a passion for food, farming and the environment and stays close to all the political, scientific and economic challenges facing a post-Brexit and Covid agricultural Britain.

Richard described the farmer’s role. While the primary role for all farmers is, of course, food production you must also ensure the farm’s economic viability, must manage the natural environment and take account of the weather, watch cash versus output, will be subject to contracts and must comply with the law. Ultimately his role is a lifestyle style choice.  Richard contrasted the longevity of different aspects of the food supply and while apples, onions and potatoes, if looked after carefully, can last through the winter and root vegetables up to a month, other vegetables only last one to two weeks while salads and berries only one to four days.

Retailers demand perfect looking fruit and vegetables, claiming this is a shopper choice. This leads to massive waste unless the ugly products can be repurposed. Similarly, as wholemeal flour is converted to white flour the residue also needs to be repurposed or generate waste. Only 50% of a cow is available to the normal market. Heads, bones and hooves need to find alternative markets, even in beauty products in some cases, and the skin of course finds a market as shoe leather.

With these shorter life products, lead times for salad vegetables like lettuce can be very challenging. If there is a sudden outbreak of  sun, everybody wants to get ready for barbecues and there can be shortages. Weather, disease and consumer trends all contribute to these challenges.  UK consumers just don’t want cows’ heads or wonky vegetables. Chicken heads and feet and pigs’ heads can find alternative markets in China. Richard explained that there have to be surpluses in an efficient and always available supply chain. Of the 10 million tonnes of waste a year, 7 million is found to be in the home.

So, what solutions can be found? We need to improve the quality of demand forecasting. In some cases we need to accept lower standards. Where possible we need to find alternative markets such as animal feed or plough back into the soil. We need to encourage consumers to eat local and seasonal food. There could be more use of taxes or subsidies to drive behavioural change but we should recognise that when we give food away we can undermine commercial markets. The NFU is aiming for net zero by 2040, 10 years ahead of the government target. Red meat is typically high in greenhouse gases and if we look at the carbon emissions and compare them to the methane gases that ruminants produce those are 23 times higher than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide which can be a by-product of fertiliser is 298 times as high as carbon dioxide and the CFCs that used to be in the atmosphere from aerosols were 20,000 times as high as carbon dioxide.

David Smith then introduced Juliane Caillouette Noble, Managing Director, Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA). Juliane came to the SRA as Development Director in 2016 after five years of running Jamie Oliver’s programmes for improving school food and food education across the UK. The SRA is a not-for-profit membership organisation committed to accelerating change towards an environmentally restorative and socially progressive hospitality sector in the UK. As Development Director, Juliane’s role included designing and developing strategic partnerships and campaigns, ensuring that the impact and influence of the SRA pros along with the size of the membership body. Julianne became the Managing Director of the SRA in January,[i]and looks forward to working with the industry to build back better and greener post Covid.

Juliane started by echoing some of Richard’s gloomy statistics about the sheer global footprint of farming production and said that if that could be cut by 40% it could free up land the size of India. An added problem is the use of plastic in food distribution. 10 specific plastic products account for 75% of all plastic and six of the 10 are related to food service. The World Wildlife Fund predicts that by 2030 the volume of plastic in the ocean will outweigh all marine life. We need circular solutions to these challenges.

1 million tonnes of food is wasted across the food service sector in the UK. The sector accounts for one in six of the 8 billion meals eaten in the UK and is equivalent to the volume of 10 Shards. Juliane says that 75% of this waste is avoidable. It costs £2.5 billion per year or £20,000 per restaurant site.

How can we as individuals make a difference?
  1. Fight for local and seasonal products
  2. Consider where to cut back on meat and dairy and consider making them special.
  3.  Rethink what abundance looks like
  4.  Understand your waste streams and use appropriate material
  5.  Vote with your fork – put your £££ to sustainable choices when dining out.
Finally, David introduced Laura Willingham OBE.  Laura co-founded City Harvest in 2014 with a dream of matching the abundance of surplus food from businesses with the millions of people in the UK that face food insecurity. City Harvest provides an elegant solution by delivering surplus food for more than 250,000 meals each week to more than 350 charities. Before City Harvest, Laura was based in both Hong Kong and New York City where she was an equity research analysis and portfolio manager as well as an advocate for food rescue. Since Laura launched City Harvest, the charity has rescued and delivered 21 million meals to those in need. In response to the pandemic, City Harvest became central to London’s emergency, humanitarian aid response delivering more than 11 million meals since the crisis began, or in other words more than half of the total the charity has rescued and delivered to date.

Laura named her presentation ‘Giving for Another Life’. In London there is enough food waste that if all of it could be saved, there would be enough food to go around for everyone.  The charity attempts to create value from waste. It is involved in nine of the UN sustainable goals. Many of her team have experienced food poverty themselves and thus have tremendous enthusiasm in their work. They rescue food from every type of business and deliver to every type of greater good. They cover all types of food except fish and seafood because of the risks associated. There is a greater urgency than ever for food rescue. 28% of London’s population are living in poverty.

Several livery companies have supported the charity and food rescue will be a feature of the New Spitalfields market. Food is simply not waste until it is wasted.

In questions Alison Gowman was asked if at the many livery company and other city dinners she had attended had there ever been an occasion when neither meat nor fish was served as the main course. She could only remember one when a senior politician visiting from India was hosted at Mansion House and many of the guests were of Indian background. There the main course was a vegetable curry. That led to further questions as to whether livery companies might be open to deliberately prioritising vegetarian and vegan offerings rather than just having them as alternatives for just a limited number of individuals. However, there was also a feeling that that would carry a certain risk as it might simply put some people off coming. At least those vegetarian and vegan alternatives are always available these days.

There are many challenges in climate change. One would have thought that the recent disastrous heatwave in Canada was the most appalling example of how fast this is happening. But all of us have the opportunity to learn some of these lessons about food sourcing and food waste and perhaps take individual actions that have some value.

[i] I was pleased to see from one of Juliane’s slides that one of my favourite local restaurants is a member.

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