Humans are contradictory creatures. We create stories to satisfy our beliefs, which means we can say one thing while doing another – something those who have spent time doing advocacy in the food space will know well.
We publicly support farmers and farming; in 2020, 75% of people voiced a positive view of UK farming, the highest figure since the annual Farmer Favourability survey was first carried out in 2012. And yet, according to the research, we are continually influenced by the food environment so that we buy food based mainly on taste, price and convenience – which continues to disadvantage those same farmers we claim to value and support. What we need is a food environment that helps people better support, and value, our farms and farmers.
Social and cultural values will have to change if we are to support farmers and re-programme our food system in ways that are safe, long-lasting and sustainable. As well as shifting away from a food culture which values convenience and price above all else, we will need to develop the food literacy of those who use food – that is, everyone – not only in terms of kitchen skills, but also greater transparency and awareness of how the food system works.
Rewriting our relationship with other animals at these individual, social and cultural levels is critical for reprograming the system. Consumption of animal products is deeply rooted in cultural habit and aspirations, and this limits the influence that policy, changes in the food environment, and even shocks such as COVID-19 can have on our dietary choices. Much of the reason for the poor food system we have now is that we are surrounded by messages and food offers which normalize poor diets.
But habits do change. The best available data showed that, in 2019, vegans accounted for 1.2% of the UK population, but a YouGov poll asking about future issues suggested that at least 14% of people felt that by 2030 they would not be eating meat, rising to 20% of 18-24 year olds. This is the direction of travel, and one which governments and policymakers have an opportunity accelerate, with all of the associated health, environmental and economic benefits that plant-based foods bring.