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  • 25th Sep 2019

Diets in flux

Sustainable Diets - Blog 2 of 4

Think of British food, and you’ll probably imagine fish and chips. Or, if your seaside trips are a little more sophisticated, maybe you’d opt for lobster. But just a few hundred years ago, lobster was the food of the poor, imposed upon workers or used as fish bait. Potatoes (never mind chips), though now central to most northern European cuisines, were unheard of on this continent until deliberately introduced by government in the sixteenth century. Initial reception to the ‘devil’s apple’ was not promising. But what else could we possibly eat with our bangers and gravy? 

Perhaps  British dishes aren’t your cup of tea (which, by the way, is hardly a longstanding tradition), so let’s think about Italian food instead. Tomatoes, a seemingly key ingredient, only came to Europe along with the potato in the sixteenth century. And pasta – well, spaghetti grows on trees, of course! Or so thought BBC viewers as recently as 1957. Sixty years later, Brits are consuming 6000 tonnes of it every week.

In our first blog post, we discussed the urgent need for a more sustainable food system, with a vital component of this being a widespread shift towards eating less meat. Such diets are already on the rise among some demographics in the UK and elsewhere, but the overall numbers are still low. The ‘traditional’ British diet, like those in many other countries, is still considered to centre around meat. This perception is important because the public appetite for policy change is diminished by the view that national diets are too steeped in tradition and too precious to meddle with. However, the history of human diets suggests that these perceptions are not necessarily well founded. Let’s look at some more examples to see how our diets have always been in flux – and often deliberately influenced. 

As we’ve seen above, migration and cultural exchange are a major cause of diet change. Alongside these, broader demographic and economic shifts, such as rising incomes and the liberalisation of global trade, have allowed us to enjoy more variety than was conceivable just a generation or two ago. This is a particularly profound change for countries with traditionally single-staple diets, such as rice across much of Asia and maize across much of Central and South America. 

Technological innovation has driven dramatic shifts in diet throughout history. For example, from the invention of the plough to the extrusion process to produce breakfast cereals, our consumption of grains has changed. New methods for food storage, such as canning, have also changed what we eat. In the last few years we’ve witnessed a further innovation, in the form of hyper-realistic plant-based meat alternatives, and cultured (lab-grown) meat. Continued development of meat substitutes is surely on the horizon. 

It’s clear, then, that we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which diets change. Exceptions exist, of course: for instance, South Korea’s traditional diet has persisted despite a 17-fold increase in GNP and mass liberalisation. But this is the exception that proves the rule: it took concerted government effort, training thousands of workers in traditional Korean cookery, and mass media campaigns to stem the flow of change.

This brings us to an additional force of change: deliberate influence by governments, NGOs and industry. Many interventions are on the basis of improving public health, such as ‘traffic light’calorie labels and tax incentives. Far fewer food interventions focus on sustainability; the campaign to reduce shark’s fin soup consumption is one example.

 Of course, the scale of all these efforts is often dwarfed by those that may not have our own or the environment’s interests in mind. For example, food producers in the UK spend almost 30 times more on advertising junk food as the government spends on its flagship healthy eating campaign. Consider also the case of pulled pork. An American BBQ classic unknown in the UK until recently, pulled pork was promoted in media campaigns by the UK’s Agricultural and Horticultural Development board in response to declining pork consumption in the early 2000s. Pulled pork’s presence on menus increased by almost 22,000% in just 6 years.

 Our conclusion from these examples is that although we often view our nations’ cuisines as precious and steeped in tradition, our memories are clearly short. We should not be so timid about a future in which we eat more sustainably, and more healthily, even if that means giving up some much-loved ‘classics’ and discovering some new ones. Indeed, over the timescales which we talk about in the context of climate change – 2030, 2040, 2050 – major shifts in diet are all but inevitable.

 This doesn’t, of course, negate all the possible objections against government intervention on our diets. In our next blog post, we’ll reflect on what behavioural science can tell us about public consent and achieving a mandate for policy.


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