Prof Judy Buttriss, director general of the British Nutrition Foundation, tells Hannah Binns how messaging around sustainable nutrition could support UK agriculture.
In recent years, growing concerns about climate change have seen more consumers make conscious choices about the types of food they eat, with red meat and dairy products facing increasing criticism for greenhouse gas emissions.
But sustainable nutrition, a term for dietary patterns which deliver nutrients for health while limiting detrimental environmental impacts, could benefit UK agriculture.
Prof Judy Buttriss, director general of the British Nutrition Foundation, said: “Comprehensive data over the past century has informed us which nutrients we need to be healthy.
“But the challenge is finding dietary patterns which deliver appropriate nutrition without resulting in irreparable damage to the environment, and are also affordable, acceptable and accessible.”
Prof Buttriss warned consumers must also consider other factors besides greenhouse gas emissions when assessing the environmental impact of dietary choices.
“A recent report (Pauline Scheelbeek, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), which looked at the health impacts and environmental footprints of diets in the UK in relation to Government’s Eatwell Guide, noted an increasingly large proportion of plant-based food is imported and originates from countries highly vulnerable to climate change and water stress,” she said.
“So, while increasing fruit and vegetable intake in alignment with the Eatwell Guide improved all-cause mortality rates, the report found it was likely to increase water usage, which could have a detrimental effect.
“Therefore, trade-offs need to be managed when determining a dietary pattern that is both healthy and environmentally sustainable and these implications must be considered in future global food strategies.”
Prof Buttriss added the relatively new science of life cycle analysis (LCA), which measures the environmental impact of a food’s production from start to consumption, was progressing, but further work was needed.
“LCAs provide a sense of a food’s footprint, but at the moment there are large variations in the published LCA values for individual foods, linked to where or how the food has been produced, emphasising the importance of using geographically relevant values,” she said.
Despite acknowledging the growing relevance and interest in plantbased eating, Prof Buttriss explained there was an important distinction to make between diets that comprise only plants and those, such as the Eatwell Guide, which are predominantly plant-derived, but with moderate amounts of animal products.
“Moving towards an EatWell Guide-based diet, plant-derived but with moderate amounts of animal protein, is expected to benefit the environment, reducing impacts by 30 per cent according to the new analysis of Scheelbeek and colleagues, as well as benefit health,” she said.
Diets “Meat, milk, eggs and fish are all concentrated sources of essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, so if these foods are excluded, substitute sources need to be consumed in adequate amounts.
“We already know diets of adolescent girls and young adults are often relatively poor, and as a nutritionist, I would say cutting these food types out entirely to ‘save the planet’ may have a detrimental impact on their health and nutrition, especially if the important nutrients are not substituted.”
Practical solutions to tackling climate change including the latest technology as well as seminars with industry leading experts and advice on the new Environmental Land Management scheme will be on offer at the Low Carbon Agriculture event on March 9-10, 2021.
Formerly the Energy and Rural Business Show, the event has rebranded and moved to the National Agriculture and Exhibition Centre (NAEC), Stoneleigh, and also includes the Low Emission Vehicles Expo.
Find out more and register for free at lowcarbonagricultureshow.co.uk
Simon Bainbridge farms 160 Black Baldies, 1,500 breeding ewes and eight flocks of 3,000 organic free-range layers on his 650-hectare organic upland farm in Northumberland.
Moving to spring calving has been a hugely effective advance for us, offering better use of our pasture resources and fodder, driving the accompanying animal growth and health gains.
We also breed maternal high health status cattle with a comprehensive vaccination programme and our yearling bulling heifers are weighed and pelvic measures taken.
Genetics are used to find a ewe which produces two healthy lambs, can live in the hills, eat very little and produce excellent meat.
Dominic Gardner, West Sussex, is a first-generation farmer contract farming or holding Farm Business Tenancies on more than 1,000ha of land, mainly arable, with 1,000 breeding ewes.
The fundamental thing is to have the right crop in the right field in the rotation, as growing a crop which does not make a profit or benefit your rotation is the most damaging thing for the environment.
After experimenting for years, I have opted for simple cover crop mixes which give continual soil cover, leaving the lowest possible nitrate in the soil at the end of the season.
Stubble turnips also provide quick winter cover which is grazed by sheep, and absorbs excess nitrate.
Net zero is an inclusive journey for all farmers and requires an attitude of mind rather than one of resources.
Agriculture can be a master of its own destiny and deliver the positive change above and beyond what is expected, but farmers need to take the first step.
Identify the small steps you can take within your business to be more efficient – it does not have to be a ‘big’ change and everyone’s contribution is unique.
With a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2040, there is still a long way to go.
Visit the Net Zero home page to cut through the jargon and view our brand new showcase of some of the measures already having positive results on farms up and down the country.