Prof Colin Osborne (Professor of Plant Biology, University of Sheffield, chair)
Dr Margo Barker (Human Nutrition Unit, University of Sheffield)
Sam Durham (Chief Land Management Adviser, National Farmers' Union)
Dr Chris Jones (Social and Environmental Psychologist, University of Sheffield)
Dr Wayne Martindale (Centre for Food Innovation, Sheffield Hallam University)
One of the ‘meatiest’ topics of the night was the vegetarian debate – with developing countries aspiring to a Western-style diet, is our rate of meat consumption sustainable? The panel agreed that a vegetarian diet will always be greener than a carnivorous one – even if it does rely on more dairy products and fruit/veg flown in from around the world. But Chris argued that presenting the issue as a “dichotomy of choice” isn’t practical or even realistic while meat plays such a central role in social celebrations. “We can get bogged down in the environmental debate but we have to consider other angles, such as whether something can be culturally sustainable” said Chris. Overall, a good place to start would be for us all to cut down on meat products – particularly red and processed meats, the worst consumers of fossil fuels, water and energy – and buy local when we can.
Food miles were also a hot topic, particularly as Britain imports a staggering 50% of its vegetables and 75% of its fruit. It doesn’t help that we are clearly out of touch with seasonal eating these days; in fact, “our need for strawberries at Christmas has put Spain under pressure to produce them for us”. But even if you do look for the “produced in Britain” label, our agricultural systems have become so globalised that you may find your salad nipped over the channel to be packaged before being reimported to your supermarket! Meanwhile, as Wayne pointed out, cutting all our food imports could jeopardise the livelihoods of thousands in developing countries. He argued that “as long as we require foods out of season, a market will be found – our job is to make sure it is sustainable and safe”.
With so many researchers in the audience, a keen question was why GM has become twisted into such a thorny issue in Europe, despite the USA having such a different approach? According to Margo it has become an issue of trust. “Food is a very emotional thing – people are perfectly happy to inject insulin produced using GM methods but they won’t consume GM food.” Little wonder, as Chris put it, when the Government adopted a strategy of “make the announcements and hope the public agrees”. Meanwhile, Sam argued that our national reluctance to engage with GM is holding our farmers back. “We should be able to compete with other countries growing these products” he stated.
Given the many challenges on the food agenda, should the focus be on individual actions or sweeping Government policies? According to Chris, the Government needs to lead on this; “People aren’t going to act unless there are structural changes to allow them to act on their changed attitudes” he said. But a draconian approach certainly won’t help, argued Wayne: “There are ways to communicate without telling people what to do. After all, the food industry has been doing this for years!”
Clearly we need to value food as it deserves and be prepared to pay a little more for sustainably produced, higher-quality food. If we could also challenge ourselves to eat meat less often, at least learn which fruit and vegetables are seasonal and look out for local varieties, then the planet will surely thank us. And don’t forget your reusable carrier bag!
Written by Caroline Wood, PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and SiP committee member
See more of Caroline's work on her blog http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/