Last week Quorn announced it will invest £30m in its County Durham factory following significant sales growth in recent years. Claire Hoolohan argues that Quorn’s success is a signal to governments, policy makers, academics, and others that the time has arrived to move forward on the sustainable food agenda.
Reducing the amount of meat in our diets is fundamental to addressing climate change, enhancing the security of food supply and improving the health and wellbeing of consumers, yet amongst policy makers, retailers, MPs and academics it causes much shuffling of feet.
The production of food is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. The production of meat alone is estimated to be responsible for 15–24% of global emissions. In the UK the impact of meat in our diets results in emissions broadly equivalent to those from the exhaust emissions of our cars.
These emissions result from energy and fuel use on farms, rumination (or to you and me, cows burping and farting), fertiliser use, and through land-use change. Additionally, processes associated with manufacturing, transportation, packaging, retail and consumption all contribute to emissions.
Furthermore reducing meat consumption is an integral part of improving the health and well-being of our nation, with alternatives such as pulses and Quorn offering much needed ‘healthy protein’, the focus on which has been the strategy behind Quorn’s latest advertising.
Food has political significance for a host of other reasons too. With lively debate around organic produce, animal welfare, fair trade and economic sustainability of the industry food draws together some of the biggest social, environmental and economic concerns of our time.
For many what we choose to eat reflects deeply personal decisions and the freedom to make such decisions is a quintessential privilege of living in a developed western nation. To add to this, what we eat, when we eat it, where, when and how we shop are all complex everyday activities entangled in patterns of daily life.
Yet trends shift all the time. Fashions affect the flavours and foods on our plate much like the style of our clothes – who would have predicted fancy pop-corn making it onto shop shelves? And of course government guidance changes over time, evidenced, for instance, in the recent switch from advising that consumers eat ‘five-a-day’ to the now recommended consumption of seven daily portions of fruit and veg.
Yet when it comes to promoting low-meat diets no-one seems to be prepared to take the first step. Retailers need to protect sales, farmers need to protect livelihoods, and governments don’t want to intrude on the lives of their voters. Ultimately responsibility is devolved to consumers to choose, and for everyone else to provide the robust, transparent information and incentives that will hopefully encourage those choices to be good ones.
So why should we being paying attention to Quorn?
2014 has been a highly productive year for Quorn so far. Their £30 million investment in their County Durham factory, increasing its production capacity by 50%, reflects recent growth of 13% in UK markets while other food sectors continue to ride out the recession. 400 new jobs might result from this investment; not a result to be sneered at with job creation looking like it is going to be one of the linchpins of the next round of elections.
The figures Quorn report appear to be tangible evidence that people are increasingly electing to eat less meat. But we cannot rely on individual action alone, particularly not when it comes to diets, with complex supply chains deeply entwined in everyday practice.
So maybe consumers have made their move. Now there is an opportunity for retailers, producers and farmers to work out how they can respond to these signals. There are various options consistent with such transition, for instance increasing the availability of vegetarian foods and making them irresistible to consumers or encouraging a shift from high impact meats (beef and lamb) to lower impact meats (pork and poultry).
Changes such as these have significant implications for the structure and profile of farming in the UK and there is a need for robust policy and government support for activity which aids such transitions without isolating farming communities. Furthermore there is a role for policy makers, academics and others across a wide range of currently disparate agendas to pull together and create a coherent storyline around food. Creating a sustainable diet is as much about enhancing public health, alleviating poverty and promoting economic security as it is about lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
To bring about change is likely to require significant restructuring of everyday life, a convoluted challenge that calls for creative systemic thinking and energetic support for alternatives that will not be achieved by people working in silos.
Quorn’s recent investment and consumer buying patterns indicate that it is time for those in positions of influence to stop shuffling their feet and start marching towards significant, sustainable change in food practices.