Food with heavy environmental impact should be taxed by 2025 unless food industry acts voluntarily, says alliance
A powerful coalition of the UK’s health professions has called for a climate tax to be imposed on food with a heavy environmental impact by 2025, unless the industry takes voluntary action on the impact of their products.
The group says the climate crisis cannot be solved without action to cut the consumption of food that causes high emissions, such as red meat and dairy products. But it says that more sustainable diets are also healthier and would reduce illness.
The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) includes 10 Royal Colleges of medicine and nursing, the British Medical Association and the Lancet, representing the doctors, nurses and other professionals entrusted with caring for the country’s health.
The alliance’s new report makes a series of recommendations including a swift end to buy-one-get-one-free offers for food that is bad for health and the environment, and for perishable foods that are often wasted.
It also calls for public information campaigns on diet to include climate messages, for labels on food to reveal its environmental impact, and for the £2bn spent every year on catering in schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons to meet minimum environmental standards.
A YouGov poll of healthcare professionals for UKHACC found two-thirds agreeing that environmentally friendly diets can also improve your health, while 40% had already changed their own eating habits due to environmental concerns.
Food production is responsible for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and a series of scientific studies have shown that red meat and dairy have far bigger impacts than plant-based food. People in rich nations already eat more meat than is healthy and in the UK only one in three eat the recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables.
“We can’t reach our goals without addressing our food system,” said Kristin Bash, who leads the Faculty of Public Health’s food group and was a co-author of the UKHACC report. “The climate crisis isn’t something we should see as far in the future. It’s time to take these issues seriously now.”
Bash said the report was not telling people to become vegans: “It’s just saying increase your consumption of plant protein. It’s a simple message and something that’s widely supported by health organisations around the world.”
Nicky Philpott, the director of UKHACC, said taxes on plastic bags and sugary soft drinks had shown such policies can reduce harmful activities. The report said the government should state an intention to levy a food carbon tax on all food producers if voluntary action on the full climate impact of food products is not taken by the industry by 2025.
Marco Springmann, at the University of Oxford and not involved in the report, said there was substantial scientific evidence on the close connection between public and planetary health: “The message is clear: without drastic reduction in the production and consumption of meat and dairy, there is little chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change.”
“UKHACC is right in stressing that dietary changes of the scale required will not happen without strong policy support,” he said.
Henry Dimbleby, who leads the independent group developing England’s National Food Strategy, said: “Covid-19, painful though it is, could pale into insignificance compared to the turbulence created by climate change and the collapse in biodiversity. Healthcare professionals have an important role in shaping our diets, and I am very pleased to see their recommendations cover not only our health, but that of our planet too.”
Some action is already happening in the UK to cut the environmental impact of food. In April, public sector caterers serving billions of meals a year pledged to reduce the amount of meat they serve by 20%, cutting 9m kg of meat a year.
In October, the NHS set a target of cutting its net carbon emissions to zero by 2040 and included food in its action plan: “Healthier, locally sourced food can improve wellbeing while cutting emissions.”
Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, said UKHACC’s recommendation of environmental labelling on food was important. “Today you can walk into a shop and buy something with an environmental impact many times higher than another food, and have no idea you have done so.” For example, Brazilian beef uses 200 times more land and causes 80 times more emissions than European tofu, he said.
Prof Andrew Goddard, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “I am the first to admit that I enjoy a steak every now and then, but it’s clear that if we are to avoid dangerous global warming we must start to reconsider our attitudes to food. We each have a responsibility and an ability to make a difference as individuals.”