This event was hosted by TABLE on 14 November 2023 and took the format of a panel discussion with:
Dr Tara Garnett (director of TABLE);
Dustin Benton (Green Alliance);
Dr Dhanush Dinesh (Clim-Eat);
Arghanoon Karhikhtah (Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)).
We need a dietary shift towards more healthy, sustainable, and equitable diets. The scientific evidence is clear: if we are to have any chance of controlling food system related emissions and mitigating the effects of climate change, we need to transition on a massive scale, especially through the reduction of meat consumption in many contexts.
We know where we need to go, then, but it isn’t clear how we get there. On 14th November, ahead of COP28 where food is set to feature more prominently than ever before, TABLE invited Dr. Dhanush Dinesh (Clim-Eat), Arghanoon Farhikhtah (FAO), and Dustin Benton (Green Alliance) to discuss what role governments and international governance should play in driving the food transition.
The Need for Strong Leadership
A declaration from heads of states on food systems at COP28 will mark a step forward in efforts to unite climate and diets. Speaking for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Farhikhtah welcomed the willingness of many Member states to take a more coherent approach to climate and nutrition. But for Dinesh, while he saw the “food moment” at COP as “great” on one level, there are still huge limitations. On the one hand, there are some countries who are unwilling to acknowledge the need for dietary shifts. For those that do accept this need, however, there’s a failure to address the “right issues at the right level of detail” and make practical policy commitments. Speaking from a UK vantage point, Benton agreed that there’s still a lack of political appetite for concrete action. “Diets are difficult, let’s be honest”, he said. “No politician wants to be accused of telling an individual what to eat.”
The evidence and information that experts and advocacy groups can provide is essential, but it hasn’t been enough to get things moving. Our speakers suggested different paths forward. On the international stage, Dinesh was keen to advocate for clearer leadership now: a coalition of determined countries using their voice to advocate for change, and stronger leadership from the FAO. Farhikhtah responded that the FAO does want to raise awareness of a “win-win” opportunity to tackle climate and diet in an integrated way and provide Member states with tools and expertise to do that, but that ultimately countries must make their own choices and demands.
Building that momentum for change at the country level is a process that requires citizen involvement, suggested Benton. Through “deliberative dialogues”, or even citizens’ assemblies, it’s possible to build “consensus and a mandate for change.” In his work conducting deliberative dialogues while developing the UK’s National Food Strategy, Benton found that politicians were actually lagging behind on options citizens were very willing to consider, especially where the immediate public health benefits were clear, such as taxes on sugar and salt. Dialogue processes were also helpful for breaking down barriers between those who preferred plant-based diets and those who ate animal products. There’s not an appetite for tackling meat consumption with a tax though, said Benton, and he wouldn’t recommend it. In fact, polling found that there was “a blocking minority” - perhaps 12 or 13% of people - who were “energetically opposed” and felt that such a tax would harm them in some way. It’s strongly held beliefs like these that create the real challenge to political interventions on diets.
There are other, even more intransigent barriers at work at the level of organizations and business interests. Achieving change means facing some of the economics of the system head-on, said both Dinesh and Benton. For Benton, the economic challenge is that “there are lots of companies currently making money out of a food system that makes us sick and is destroying the planet”, and governments are often subsidising that system on some level. For Dinesh, it’s the problem of how national and business interests interact to block change in the international arena. “Very often in negotiations on agriculture”, he said, “it’s the same meat exporting countries who are blocking progress.” We’ve seen the effects of active lobbying by “big livestock” even at the level of scientific expertise too, with the recent Dublin Declaration. Diplomacy is too mild, suggested Dinesh, “we need to tackle [these issues] in a bold and firm way.” Farhikhtah countered that the current diplomatic approach is important because there is no single right way forward for everyone: different contexts require different answers. The FAO’s understanding of contextual differences is a keystone of its wide reach, legitimacy, and leadership on the international stage.
Learning from the Past, Looking Forward
Amidst this intransigence, it’s important to remember that “our diets are absolutely not fixed, we can and do change them”, said Benton. In the UK over recent decades, customers have transitioned to lower fat milks (a health-motivated transition), they have shifted from beef to chicken (a price transition), and from potatoes to pasta (a cultural transition). Farhikhtah, meanwhile, suggested that, in addition to food systems based dietary guidelines, public food procurement is “a concrete action to transform food systems” that can create rapid change at the country level.
Taking examples from other major transitions is another useful tool for imaginative thinking. Benton and Dinesh were particularly interested in the energy transition as a potential model for food. Benton pointed out that global leadership was essential: when the International Energy Agency, a well-respected international organization “finally broke with the orthodoxy of decades” to advocate for a transition, that was a major factor in motivating the shift. Crucially, the IEA didn’t prescribe any singular route to renewables, leaving countries to determine the path that made sense in their own contexts. If a similar organization in the food systems space were to make such a bold statement on dietary shifts, he argued, this could mark the tipping point for transformation.
The other key, and perhaps more immediately hopeful, comparison between dietary and energy transitions is that they both offer new business opportunities. Countries and corporations alike saw the growth benefits of new industries in renewables, and that’s why, for Dinesh, the alternative proteins sector is a source of hope. It offers “a carrot rather than a stick to help countries shift.” Dinesh noted that there was an appetite from countries like Brazil, China, and India to be a part of that shift, essentially saying “if there’s a good business case, we want to be part of that.” It’s a carrot for citizens too, suggested Benton, where alternative proteins offer tasty, easily substitutable alternatives that don’t “feel like wearing a hair shirt.” New industries also mean jobs. For Farhikhtah, the importance of livelihoods for any sustainable food transition needs to be considered alongside diets. She pointed out that Agenda 2030 commits to ‘leave no one behind’, and that means supporting people's livelihoods through any transition.
Our speakers held distinctive ideas about how best to approach this change, and what they’d most like to see from governments. For Dinesh, it was about shifting the unequal power balance within the food system. He’d like to see governments shifting away from business as usual and looking more seriously at what they could do to reset those dynamics. For Farhikhtah, it’s about collaboration and coordination between stakeholders throughout the food system. Within governments, there needs to be open communication between ministries to allow for a holistic approach, and it’s up to international organizations, NGOs and academia to provide the tools and knowledge needed to move in the right direction. Benton, meanwhile, wanted to see governments funding alternative proteins, and a democratisation of the discussion around diets to bring citizens on board and build a legitimate public mandate for a healthy and sustainable transition. Where all the speakers agreed, then, is that there is a strong role for governments in driving the dietary transition, and now is the time for action.
Event summarised by Hester van Hensbergen. This is TABLE's account of the event and any commentary included is our own and does not imply endorsement by the panellists participating in it.
A large, robust and ever growing body of evidence concludes that if we are to achieve our net zero climate commitments and address our many SDG goals - from zero hunger, to good health and wellbeing, to responsible consumption and production - then diets will need to change. For rich countries which bear historical responsibility for the climate problem, in addition to balanced calorie intake and greater dietary diversification, citizens will on average need to consume fewer animal products (meat, egg, and dairy) and more plant based foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains. But while the advantages for climate, biodiversity and human wellbeing of achieving such a change are potentially enormous, the obstacles are immense. They include, among other things, corporate investment in the unsustainable status quo, the entrenched nature and cultural importance of existing dietary patterns, and the need to ensure that the transition process overcomes, rather than exacerbates, existing social inequalities. Perhaps most important of all, the complexity of our global food system means the ability to effect change is always seen to lie with someone else. The facts that any one action is always going to be insufficient in and of itself (and may backfire) and that real change requires action by many different actors, can serve as an excuse for doing nothing. And yet if no one does anything, nothing will change.
In this webinar, organised by TABLE, we take a look at the role of one particular actor in the food system - Government - and ask what role Government can and should play in shifting diets in more sustainable, healthy and equitable directions. What are the essential ingredients of the policy-making puzzle? What are the obstacles against government action (ranging from corporate relocation, to voter hostility to moral objections to the state intervening in private affairs) and what might the counter arguments be?
Dustin Benton is policy director at Green Alliance, leading our work across energy, resources, and the natural environment, with a particular focus on getting on track to net zero emissions. Between 2020-21, he was on secondment with Defra, where he was chief analytical advisor to the National Food Strategy. Previously he led our work in the Low Carbon Energy and Resource Stewardship themes, focusing on energy efficiency, renewables, and CCS, and was an expert commentator on resource risk, plastics, circular electronics and the EU-wide Alliance for Circular Economy Solutions. Before joining Green Alliance, Dustin worked for the Campaign to Protect Rural England where he led work on the relationship between landscape protection, climate change, and new energy infrastructure. He holds an MA in Political Thought and Theory from the University of Birmingham and an MA in International Relations and French from the University of St Andrews.
Dhanush Dinesh worked as Head of Partnerships and Outreach of CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) to scale up Climate-Smart Agriculture prior to founding Clim-Eat. He is a Trustee of Plan Vivo Foundation and a Visiting Researcher at the University of Leeds. His previous work experience includes roles within the private sector, NGOs, and the UN system, in China, India, Thailand, and the UK. He has worked on a range of issues including forestry, environmental policy, climate change adaptation, and advocacy, at the national, regional, and global levels. Dhanush has an interdisciplinary academic background, combining an MBA from PSG Institute of Management and an MSc in Carbon management from the University of Edinburgh and has a PhD in Environmental Governance from the Universiteit Utrecht.
Arghanoon Farhikhtah is a Nutrition Mainstreaming Expert working on the Food and Nutrition Division team in support to Global Governance at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations headquarters in Rome. She has 10 years of experience in various types of nutrition and health programme and policy work. Her role at FAO is centered on enabling healthy diets from sustainable food systems by working with multistakeholder platforms that provide support to Governments in transforming their food systems. Further, she leads cross-divisional efforts to enhance the food environment in FAO offices worldwide. Previously she worked as a Nutrition Officer at the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Mozambique and headquarters in Italy. Her portfolio of work included nutrition and HIV programming, monitoring and evaluation, and social and behavior change communication in development and humanitarian settings. She holds a Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and is a Registered Dietician and Nutritionist.
Chair: Dr Tara Garnett, Director of TABLE