Shaking up the food system - Q&A with Mark Driscoll

Following the success of our Roundtable on the National Food Strategy with MyNutriWeb, we wanted to dive deeper into our panel of experts. Continue reading to hear what Mark Driscoll, Founder and Director of Tasting the Future, had to say on the ground-breaking report, its gaps, and opportunities.

Tell us about yourself and your interest in sustainability

I am Founder and Director of Tasting the Future, a sustainable food systems consultancy which I established in 2018. I bring together expert teams of trusted associates to deliver strategies, projects, policy and practice which can drive action for a healthy and sustainable food system. With an academic background in agriculture and environmental science, I have over 25 years’ experience of leading a diverse range of innovative sustainable food strategies, projects and programmes for a range of organisations, including the National Trust, WWF-UK and Forum for the Future.

I champion the concept of sustainable nutrition with a focus on the interlinkages between human and planetary health, and manage a number of innovative, collaborative initiatives which catalyse action and innovation, working with funders, innovators, food and beverage businesses and civil society organisations. I am a passionate advocate for solutions that change our relationship with food, to ensure we, as citizens, reconnect with our food, pay farmers a fair price for food and ensure we restore our own health and that of our planet.

What excites you most about the National Food Strategy?

To paraphrase what Henry Dimbleby said in his report ‘we cannot build a sustainable, healthy and fair food system by doing business as usual.’ I welcome the publication of the National Food strategy (NFS) which is the result of nearly two years extensive consultation and engagement with a wide variety of groups across England – citizens, young people, farmers, businesses, academics and NGOs to name but a few.

For the first time we have a proposal that links the need for changes in farming and what we eat. It contains fourteen specific recommendations, covering every part of the supply chain from farmers to final consumers. This plan would create radical change in the function of the UK food and drink system. If the government were to implement this plan, which I doubt, it would demonstrate UK global leadership on sustainable food systems.

I am particularly excited by the proposal to develop an updated reference diet for the nation, in line with our health and sustainability goals would create a single reference point to underpin policies and advice. We also need to change the way we use our land and the opportunity to create a land use framework to guide local decision making also presents some exciting opportunities.

In your opinion, where are the gaps?

I don’t think this plan is perfect – it is taking a pragmatic approach given some of the political hurdles and challenges that we are dealing with. We know that to address the climate, biodiversity crisis and malnutrition, we need to change our diets. The strategy focusses on the need to reduce meat consumption by 30% by 2030 – to meet our climate and health goals but I don’t think this goes far enough. We should be aiming by a 50% reduction by this date and a 70% reduction by 2050.

In addition, I think more could have been said with regards to the need to move away from intensive industrial livestock production systems to ones that are based on agroecological and regenerative farming systems – which don’t rely on pesticides, growth promoters or fossil fuels and which restore soil health and biodiversity for example.

Does the NFS go far enough on the question of sustainable and healthy diets?

With the caveat on not being strong enough on the need to reduce meat consumption, I support the call for a 30% increase in fruit and vegetables would bring us in line with the Eatwell recommendation to eat five pieces of fruit and vegetables per day; and a 50% increase in fibre would bring us in line with the SACN recommended 30g/day.

I do think the new proposed reference diet should be mandatory and there is a big opportunity to ensure governments procurement (government buying standards for food) are aligned with the EatWell Guide and new reference diet. The Government spends £2.4 billion every year buying food – for schools, hospitals, the Armed Forces, prisons and government offices and the influence on diets of the nation are significant.

How can we make sure that the NFS leads to action? Who needs to be involved and what needs to be done?

My fear is the government may cherry pick some of the recommendations and ignore others, continuing to tweak around at the edges rather than take the bull by the horn and act on most recommendations. We cannot have half-hearted measures – we need to fundamentally transform the UK food system that will benefit human, planetary and animal health.

I would like to see the government using the Food strategy as the basis for a cross departmental implementation plan, led by government, with ownership and engagement with a wide range of actors across the UK. In addition, I would like to see the establishment of an independent national food plan implementation council, or equivalent, representing farmers, nutritionists, public health, civil society and businesses. I would like the government to take the listening and learning approach team by encouraging a network of local based food policy councils that can also feed into the implementation plan

If we all committed to one thing to make a difference, what should it be?

As Michael Pollen once famously said eat food mostly plants – we need to be eating many more plants within our diets. When we do eat meat, it should be less but better meats – with meats coming from farming systems that are agroecological and using the highest animal welfare standards.

To catch up on the free expert roundtable, click here.

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