Tackling “the silent players” – supermarkets and major food processors – while supporting farmers will be key to solving the health and climate crises linked to our food system. That was the strong message of speakers at a recent conference on transitioning Ireland to a healthy and sustainable food system.
The Fixing Food Together gathering was organised by the Climate and Health Alliance (CHA) to mark the launch of their new position paper whose recommendations include ending the junk-food cycle, promoting a transition to more plant-based diets and improving agricultural practices and land use.
Members of the CHA include the Irish College of General Practitioners; the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF), the Irish Cancer Society and the Association for Health Promotion Ireland.
“It’s not about lecturing farmers. It’s not about individual choices. It’s about reaching the silent people in the food system – the supermarkets and multinationals – who don’t get put under the spotlight. We need regulation to get system change,” said Oisín Coughlan, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Ireland.
The Fixing Food Together report noted greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from a typical Irish diet exceeds planetary boundaries by 226 per cent and that almost half (48.4 per cent) of Ireland’s emissions come from animal food products.
In a paper entitled People, Planet, Profit – a Business Win-Win-Win or a Grand Illusion, Prof Norah Campbell, a specialist in critical marketing at Trinity College Business School, said it was time to move away from partnership with the food industry.
“Partnership hasn’t borne the fruit we wanted it too. We want corporations to take on the negative duties of obeying taxation and regulation. We need to stop saying every little helps – that’s in the interests of the status quo – we need to change the starting point and look at the commercial determinants of health and environment and the economies which shape our health and stop talking about individual behaviour change,” Campbell added.
Considering foods as bad if they were high in sugar, salt or saturated fats shouldn’t be the focus of our attention any more, she argued. “It’s the novel ingredients, ultra-processing and not the nutritional content that’s the problem. A diet high in ultra-processed foods – eg breakfast cereals, breads, yoghurts – even for people at a normal weight increases their risk of chronic diseases.”
The position paper reported that 45.9 per cent of Irish household food purchases are ultra-processed. The strong link between regular consumption of ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity and cancer is well established but the report also noted the environmental footprint of ultra-processed foods with multiple ingredients and production practices, higher transport costs and single-use plastic packaging.
Campbell suggested the Government could subsidise a selection of retailers who remove all ultra-processed foods from their shelves as an experiment to benefit both health and the environment and offer opportunities for emerging food cultures.
Concerns were also expressed about the nutritional content and long-term health impacts of ultra-processed alternative-meat products. “Vegan junk food is still junk food,” said Orna O’Brien, dietitian at the IHF and primary author of the report.
Brendan Dunford, former manager of the Burren Programme (a payment system which incentivised farmers to improve biodiversity, water quality and cultural heritage) said there was a need to reimagine farmers as land managers delivering a suite of ecosystem services depending on whether the land is good for carbon sequestration and/or food production.
“Farmers need long term local advisers within the farming community. They may be slow to change but then they are very loyal,” Dunford added.
Wicklow dairy farmer John Kelly spoke about how farmers now know that they have to live and work within the natural environment on their farms.
“The vision of increased production didn’t recognise the consequences of intensification. The previous policy was to produce cheap food and to specialise to be profitable. I know we won’t be farming in the same way in the future. Farmers can’t create new markets on their own but they will move towards them if they are there.” he said.
While there weren’t any representatives of An Bord Bia – the Irish food board contributing to the conference, a spokesperson responded to The Irish Times after the conference by saying its remit is “to promote Irish food, drink and horticulture at home and across key export markets” and that it is aware of “the growing consumer demand and interest in healthy food”.
In Striking the Balance – Plant, Protein and the Planet, the international study published in April 2023 by An Bord Bia, 68 per cent of Irish people said they were willing to change the foods they consume significantly to improve the environment. Yet 81 per cent said that nutritional value trumps environmental impact when they make food choices. And 79 per cent said cost trumped environmental impact when they make food choices.
That same survey found 80 per cent of Irish people would like businesses/organisations to do more to reduce the impact of food and drink production/consumption on the environment. Some 42 per cent of Irish consumers think climate change will impact what we can grow and what we eat in the future.
Dr Mary Flynn, chief specialist in public health and nutrition at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland said we must remember that dairy and meat contain good-quality protein as well as minerals such as iron and zinc especially important for children and older adults.
“The dietary guidelines promoted in the food pyramid support sustainable diets. They advocate for red meat three times a week, fish once a week and three portions of dairy a day – milk, cheese and eggs,” she said.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Dr Flynn added that she thinks land use should be viewed in global terms. “Ireland has a temperate climate which is ideal for dairy and the protein in Irish dairy is a therapeutic food ingredient for malnourished children around the world. I worry about war and conflict. Where is the gatekeeper in the global debate on where food is produced around the world?” she asked.
Fixing Food Together recommendations
The position paper from the Climate and Health Alliance wants a new Cabinet subcommittee on food that includes the Minister for Health and the Minister for Agriculture with a mandate to protect public health and develop a sustainable farming sector.
It also recommends six areas where Ireland needs to drive change:
1) To ban the marketing of junk food to children, including bans on advertising on public transport and near schools, hospitals and other public buildings.
2) To legislate for the removal of high fat, salt and sugar foods and drinks from the end of aisles and at checkouts and to ban the buy-one-get-one-free offers in supermarkets.
3) To integrate health and sustainability criteria into food served in hospitals, schools, etc.
4) To reduce the amount of meat consumed to 50-70 grammes per day per person while including more fruits, vegetables, legumes and pulses in our daily diets.
5) To make fruit and vegetables cheaper and easier to buy, especially for low-income households.
6) To incentivise farmers who wish to transition from beef and dairy to more sustainable farming practices.