Plant-based food needed or risk ‘health disaster’

By Matt Atherton

- Last updated on GMT

Manufacturers need to shift to more plant-based foods, said Tim Lang
Manufacturers need to shift to more plant-based foods, said Tim Lang

Related tags Public health Food Food processing

Manufacturers need to shift from producing “ultra-processed” foods to more plant-based food, or risk disaster for public health and the environment, warns food policy expert Professor Tim Lang from City, University of London. 

The food sector needs to be completely redesigned and focused on sustainability of the environment and public health, Lang said. Food and drink manufacturers have to be part of a culture change for that to happen, he added.

“Businesses are generally about ultra-processing,” ​Lang said, speaking at the Food and Drink Federation’s Ensuring Sustainable Supply Chain convention on Wednesday (November 23). “Ultra-processing is the term we now use to describe opportunities to put salt, fat and sugar into food. 

‘Good for business, but a disaster environmentally’

“Even in low income countries, ​[ultra-processed foods] are rising ​[in popularity]. When they get richer, they rise ​[in popularity] even faster and more people eat processed foods. That's very good news for ​[manufacturers] – it’s good for business, but a disaster environmentally and in terms of public health.”

Lang said ‘ultra-processed’ meat contributed more to climate change than plant-based foods. Excessive antibiotic use in meat production could cause “the biggest public health problem of the early 21st​ century”​, he added.

“We've got a new challenge, and ​[food manufacturers] have to be part of that,”​ Lang said. “We have to redesign the food system for ecological public health”​.

There isn​t any alternative than to completely change consumer and manufacturing culture, and to increase plant-based food production, he said. Specifically, he called for manufacturers to focus on horticulture – not necessarily agriculture.

‘In a total mess’

He said: “Horticulture in Britain is in a total mess. We only produce 15% of our own fruit. ​[There are] 2,300 ​[varieties of British] apples, but somehow two-thirds of all British apples on sale are imported.

“It​s completely crazy. It​s a market failure.”

Meanwhile, there’s a clear business strategy to being more sustainable, claimed Marks & Spencer head of responsible sourcing Louise Nicholls. Nicholls – who featured in Food Manufacture’s Lean and green manufacturing webinar earlier this year – said businesses could still be profitable while being sustainable.

More plant-based food needed – at a glance

  • Excessive antibiotic use causes antibiotic resistance
  • Meat production causes greater climate change
  • Manufacturers need to be part of culture change on food

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