Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH, reflects on the links between food, farming, climate change and health, and how to make change happen at scale.
Sometimes you really need to take a broad perspective if you want to make a seismic shift. You need to look at complex systems to see how they might be better aligned to produce different results. Right now, there is possibly no better example of this than the entangled worlds of food systems, the environment, and public health. It seems that in this area, we are at a critical point where change is possible if those of us from different perspectives and professions advocate in the same direction and across sectors.
This has been brought home to me over the last two years in my role as a Commissioner on the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. Bringing people together from a range of areas has created a new and productive conversation which looks at how, post-Brexit, we can create a food and farming system which is good for the environment, jobs, climate change, farmers and for the public’s health and wellbeing.
This time last year, we had the EAT Lancet Commission’s report on what we should be eating for our health and to maintain the planet. The short answer is that we should be eating less and better meat, and more plants. This is a global issue and each country must develop plans that support a sustainable world.
Here in the UK we continue to see increases in childhood obesity, particularly amongst the poorest families, which means our health inequalities are still among the most stark in Europe. On this challenge, no amount of evidence-based behaviour change – however well-conceived – is going to make the changes we need to see, at the scale and speed we need to see them. At this point understanding and changing the environments in which we live to ensure that healthy, tasty and affordable food is the default option is a priority. At RSPH we have done much to further this with our many reports and campaigns, such as Health on the High Street and Routing Out Childhood Obesity, to name but a few.
But there is so much more to do, and changing our food system so that it is good for farmers, the environment and health could support transformations that go beyond tackling health inequalities. To achieve this vision, the UK could produce more of its own healthy food, and be part of the conversation to change globalized unhealthy food businesses. What has become very clear is that improved food production and healthier eating is aligned with tackling climate change and creating sustainable systems. This aim sits alongside the commitment to a more robust childhood obesity plan outlined by many of us in the consultation response to the Prevention Green Paper last summer.
There are some other policy levers we should be pulling at the present time, including making sure that people’s health and wellbeing is included in the Agriculture Bill. We should also be engaging robustly with the National Food Strategy, which is currently taking evidence from around the country and from a wide range of organisations.
There is a broad coalition with the same overall aims at the moment, and as a result there are golden opportunities that we must seize to change our food systems – a point I emphasised when giving evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on food, poverty, health and the environment earlier this week. I would urge that those of us who care about improving the public’s health and wellbeing should align ourselves to these broader aims of food systems change, and think ambitiously about how this could enable us to deal with obesity ‘by stealth’.