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Change diets, not the planet

The link between food and sustainability

We explore how shifting diets can help create a more sustainable world.

Read this article to understand:

  • What a sustainable diet looks like
  • How to shift food culture
  • The main investment opportunities

In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote his influential work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he gloomily deliberated on food supplies failing to keep pace with population growth. While episodes of food shortages have occurred regularly in the intervening years, particularly in developing countries, the global food system has generally defied Malthus’ predictions of mass famine.

Modern intensive agriculture produces more than enough calories to feed 7.8 billion people – the biggest global population in human history. Figure 1 shows how the number of humans has grown relative to animals.

Figure 1: Estimated biomass of humans and wild land-dwelling vertebrates in 10,000 BC versus today
Estimated biomass of humans and wild land-dwelling vertebrates in 10,000 BC versus today
Source: ‘The National Food Strategy: The plan’, 20211

The big question is whether this will remain the case indefinitely. After all, there is only so much land and resources to produce food. While there has been a common assumption the food system can meet demand by becoming more efficient – using less resources and improved technologies – changes in production and consumption patterns are needed to feed a growing population.

But are people prepared to make what could be radical dietary changes to mitigate the damage to the planet?

The problem with meat

The world’s food systems contribute to one third of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second biggest contributor to climate change after energy. It is also the single biggest contributor to biodiversity loss, drought, freshwater pollution and the collapse of aquatic wildlife, while agricultural land use is the main driver of deforestation.2

“No matter which method you use for your assessments, the message is always the same. We need a great food transition made up of rapid dietary shifts to plant-based diets; deep reductions in food waste; and increases in yields,” says Paul Behrens, an academic in environmental change at Leiden University in the Netherlands and author of The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Futures from the Frontiers of Climate Science. “The potential for dietary shifts is the largest opportunity of the three, closely followed by food waste reductions. We simply cannot get to where we need to be without dietary shifts. There might be some technologies where people can get lab-based meat in future, but that’s a long way off and we need changes now.”

Food demand is set to increase enormously as the global population is projected to grow to nearly ten billion people by 2050.3 The intake of protein in Western countries is way above the average daily requirement – the US Department of Agriculture recommends about 90 grammes per day for men and 60 grammes for women. And, unlike carbohydrates or fats, excess protein can’t be stored in the body. This is why some experts are calling for a drastic reduction in animal-based consumption and to use land to feed humans instead of animals.

Figure 2 shows that limiting ruminant consumption to 52 calories per person per day in all regions reduces the greenhouse gas mitigation gap by half and nearly closes the land gap.

Figure 2: Ruminant meat consumption (kcal/capita/day)
Ruminant meat consumption
Source: ‘Creating a sustainable food future’, 20184
We're seeing an increase in demand for meat consumption; we've not reached the peak yet

While there have been suggestions meat consumption has already peaked (see Figure 3), it seems more likely the situation will get worse with over three billion people set to join the global middle classes by 2030. As urbanisation intensifies and people become wealthier, they generally converge towards a Western-style diet – high in calories, protein and resource-intensive foods such as meat and dairy products. This will make it hard for the world to achieve several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including those on hunger, healthy lives, water management, climate change and terrestrial ecosystems.

“In developing markets, and especially China, meat consumption per capita is increasing as people join the middle class. That, compared to these slight reductions in meat intake from developed markets, means we're seeing an increase in demand; we've not reached the peak yet,” says Jonathan Toub, co-manager of the Aviva investors Natural Capital Transition Global Equity strategy.

Figure 3: Meat consumption (kg per capita/year)
Meat consumption
Source: Aviva Investors, 2022. Data from ‘The National Food Strategy: The plan’, 20215

According to estimates, substituting beans for beef in US diets would reduce carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) emissions by 334 million metric tonnes (mmt), equating to 75 per cent of the US’s 2020 overall emissions reduction target.6 In turn, this would free up 42 per cent of US cropland. One kilogramme (kg) of beef production results, on average, in 27kg of CO2. In comparison, one kg of lentils produces 0.9kg of carbon dioxide.7

Not all meat is created equal, however. Figure 4 shows emissions from protein-rich foods per 100 grammes of protein across a global sample of 38,700 commercially viable farms in 119 countries. The height of the curve represents the amount of production globally with that specific footprint. Cattle is the livestock sector with the biggest variations in emissions, with Paraguay emitting over 200kg of CO2 for every kilo of beef, while Denmark emits less than 15kg.

Figure 4: Protein’s carbon footprint (kgCO2e)
Protein’s carbon footprint
Source: ‘The National Food Strategy: The plan’, 20218

The main issue with cattle (and other ruminants) is their stomachs, which ferment plant cellulose into digestible starches. This process creates methane, which the animals burp out. If the number of ruminants globally was reduced, this would cut methane in the atmosphere, having a cooling effect. According to Grazed and Confused,9 a report by the Food Climate Research Network (a collaboration between several academic institutions), if all the ruminants on Earth vanished tomorrow, it would take roughly twelve years for the methane produced to leave the atmosphere and a couple more decades for the planet to cool to the same temperature as if those animals had never existed.

When it comes to meat or seafood consumption, eating smaller species makes a big difference

In his book The Climate Diet, US environmental author and journalist Paul Greenberg wrote that when it comes to meat or seafood consumption, eating smaller species makes a big difference. Larger fish like salmon, tuna and cod are caught with fuel-intensive methods and need a substantial amount of food to survive compared to small fish such as mackerel, sardines and anchovies. The same can be applied to smaller animals, such as chickens and rabbits, which are more efficient to produce than cows and pigs.10

What is a sustainable diet?

Beyond understanding the issues with meat, there is no agreed definition or way to measure what a sustainable diet is; sustainability is about more than carbon intensity – it must account for energy, biodiversity and water usage, as well as social factors. However, there are some broad principles.

“We need to eat more plants and less dairy and meat, particularly red meat. And that's for the sustainable part of it. But we shouldn’t forget health, which means eating fewer foods high in salt, sugar and highly processed,” says Anne Bordier, director of sustainable diets at World Resources Institute (WRI), a non-profit research organisation.

Perhaps the closest thing to a sustainable option is the global planetary health diet recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, a non-profit organisation.11 This seminal work set out what a healthy diet within planetary boundaries should look like.

Sustainable diets are more complex than just health and the environment

“Sustainable diets are more complex than just health and the environment. They’re also about animal welfare, food culture, making sure everyone in society has access to and can afford good quality food,” says Joanna Trewern, sustainable diets and behaviour change specialist at the World Wide Fund for Nature UK.

The planetary health diet has been incredibly influential in communicating the dietary shifts needed at a global scale, but more nuanced approaches are needed at national and local levels. “It gives an overarching vision of what diets could look like, but it's not the end goal,” says Trewern. WWF has translated EAT-Lancet recommendations to a national level for 147 countries and set out the enormous environmental and health benefits that could be achieved in each country.12

“There are nuances to it, but for many high-income nations we need to simplify the message,” agrees Behrens. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the diversity of products and impact they can have. People get so confused and worried: shall I buy oat milk or soy milk? What’s better for the environment? You’re buying plant-based milks instead of dairy, that’s great, even if that’s a simplistic way of putting it.”

“We need to make sure it is a fair transition,” adds Bordier. “It’s clear which regions need to have a deeper reduction in ruminant meat consumption: Europe, the Americas and Oceania all have much higher levels of per capita consumption than the rest of the world and this is where dietary shifts will have the biggest impact.”

Toub also believes one diet does not fit all. “In terms of sustainable diets, it depends on the geography where that diet takes place given the varied carbon footprint that might be involved in the supply chain. It might be OK eating huge amounts of avocados if you live in Mexico or California, but it’s not if you live in the UK – unless it's being produced in an indoor vertical farm in the Netherlands that has a very different carbon impact,” he says.

Following the Eat Well Guide, the main UK guidance, while not perfect from an environmental point of view, can significantly reduce emissions and have a positive impact on water scarcity. Bordier points out that currently only one per cent of the population eats according to the Eat Well Diet, despite most people believing they have a healthy and sustainable diet.

“There is a real disconnect between the national guidance and what people eat, but also between what people think they eat and what they actually eat. We need to update the national guidelines to make them environmentally stronger; despite that, ensuring people follow the existing guidelines will have a positive impact on health and the planet,” says Bordier.

Figure 5 shows how switching from a baseline to a flexitarian diet could have a massive impact on emissions.

Figure 5: GHG emissions in 2030 by different diets (GtCO2-eq)
GHG emissions in 2030 by different diets
Source: ‘The state of Food security and nutrition in the world’, 202113

There are also concerns around meat alternatives and other processed foods.

Meat substitutes offer a lot of benefits for the planet, but in terms of human health they can be highly processed and high in fat and salt

“Meat substitutes offer a lot of benefits for the planet, but in terms of human health they can be highly processed and high in fat and salt. We need to remember eating plants in their more natural state is an even better option. The challenge is that selling unprocessed alternatives like cauliflower steaks may not offer as high margins,” says Eugenie Mathieu, senior impact analyst and Earth pillar lead at Aviva Investors.”

Behrens believes it is another issue we must address. “It's actually to do with the general food culture and going plant-based might even help that because you might have more plant-based options in the supermarket in terms of raw foods,” he says.

Being pragmatic, animal-based consumption is not going to zero anytime soon. According to The UK National Food Strategy, meat consumption needs to fall by 30 per cent and vegetable and fruit intake needs to increase by the same amount (Figure 6). “A 30 per cent reduction sounds more achievable for a lot of people than cutting meat out altogether,” notes Bordier. “That’s an important message to get across. It is not realistic to expect everyone to go vegan.”

Figure 6: Changes needed to the national diet by 2032 compared to 2019 (per cent)
Changes needed to the national diet by 2032 compared to 2019
Source: ‘The National Food Strategy: The plan’, 202114

A just food transition

Further complicating the dietary picture are cross-border considerations, particularly between the developed and developing worlds.

Sustainable diets need to enable each country to consume their fair share

“At the global scale, sustainable diets need to enable each country to consume their fair share. Countries where malnutrition is an issue need to improve their diets, and in many cases, this will involve eating more animal-sourced foods. But it won’t be possible for them to do this within planetary boundaries unless we eat less in countries where we're overconsuming,” says Trewern.

Eating habits are damaging the environment, which in turn threaten food security. Obesity is increasing globally,15 but so is hunger. According to The state of food security and nutrition in the world,16 a report co-authored by a number of multilateral agencies, the world is not on track to achieve zero hunger by 2030. If the current trajectory continues, the number of people affected would surpass 840 million, up from 768 million (almost ten per cent of the world’s population) in 2020.

Figure 7 shows the regional inequalities. Of the total number of undernourished people in 2020, more than half live in Asia and more than one third in Africa, while Latin America and the Caribbean account for about eight per cent.

Figure 7: Undernourished versus not undernourished people (m)
Undernourished versus not undernourished people
Note: Northern America and Europe = not reported, as the prevalence is less than 2.5 percent.
Source: ‘The state of food security and nutrition in the world’, 202117

However, not all healthy diets are sustainable and not all diets designed for sustainability are healthy. There are also stark inequalities within our food system. According to FAO,18 healthy diets are estimated to be five times more expensive on average than diets that meet only dietary energy needs.

According to the UK’s annual National Diet and Nutrition Survey,19 adults on low incomes are more likely to have diets high in sugar but low in fibre, fruits, vegetables and fish. A study by the Social Market Foundations reveals more than a million people in the UK live in “food deserts” – neighbourhoods where poverty, poor public transport and a dearth of big supermarkets severely limit access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables.20

People in low-income countries rely more on staple foods and less on fruits and vegetables and animal-source foods than high-income countries. Only in Asia, and globally in upper-middle-income countries, are there enough fruits and vegetables for human consumption to meet the World Health Organization’s recommendation of consuming a minimum of 400 grammes per person per day.

Making farming more sustainable

As part of the drive to cut emissions and other harmful environmental effects from food production, farming practices must change to minimise impact and improve nature and societal outcomes.

Climate change is not the only thing we should think about

“Are we thinking about and measuring environmental impact in the right way? Climate change is not the only thing we should think about. We also need to look at freshwater use and pollution, biodiversity loss, soil health, and air quality. We need to consider farm-level impact rather than just focusing on the impact of specific products as we do currently,” says Trewern.

The Global Farm Metric (GFM) coalition believes there should be metrics to understand the impact of a farm not only on nature, but also on society. These range from water quality to soil structure, to animal welfare and the skills of the workforce (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Understanding the impact of a farm
Understanding the impact of a farm
Source: ‘The National Food Strategy’, 202121

Trewern believes one option would be to eat fewer and better animal products. Better meat comes from animals reared within healthy ecosystems, favouring natural diets from sustainable sources, in well-managed farms with high standards of animal welfare. Farming in this way helps to maintain soil health and fertility for crop production, protect landscapes and support biodiversity (livestock plays an important role in environmental or land management). But reducing current levels of consumption is key to this approach. Simply shifting to restorative farming practices without addressing overconsumption would likely exacerbate negative environmental impacts.

Better meat comes from animals reared within healthy ecosystems

The Eating Better Alliance launched a guide, Sourcing better: A pathway to less and better meat and dairy,22 that lays out eight key areas to be addressed in sourcing policies (see Figure 9). Each of the eight is measured in basic, better or best categories – where basic includes minimum legal UK standards such as Red Tractor certified, better is better than the UK minimum with labels such as RSPCA Assured and LEAF Marque, and best equates to minimal chemical use, low-stocking density and biodiversity-rich farming, including labels like organic, free range and pasture for life.

“When people go to the shop, the only thing they can do to identify more sustainable meat, dairy and eggs is look for labels such as organic or free-range. These certification schemes are really useful in providing information to the consumer, but they don’t provide the full picture,” says Trewern. “We need to understand how individual farming practices can deliver better environmental outcomes, animal welfare and other benefits. That's a really important area of research to inform understanding of how food production needs to change.”

Figure 9: Areas that define better meat

Animal welfare

Antibiotic use

GHG emissions

Land use change

Biodiversity

Soil health

Local pollution

Water scarcity

Source: ‘Sourcing better: A pathway to less and better meat and diary’, 202123

Each pound of grass-fed beef produces 500 per cent more greenhouse gases than grain-fed.24 Grain-fed cows also produce one third of the methane of grass-fed, partly due to their shorter life span.

The Food Climate Research Network’s Grazed and Confused report25 addressed part of this issue. If beef is bad for the environment, one approach is to manage the damage via intensification (improving feed crop and animal breeding, optimising feed formulations and reducing the land animals use, either by confining them in production units or by intensifying pastures).

An alternative is to cut back on eating animal products altogether but this conclusion is too simplistic

An alternative is to cut back on eating animal products altogether (eating plants directly would mean less land and fewer climate-warming gases). However, this conclusion is too simplistic and based on a narrow set of metrics, such as emissions per unit of meat or milk output.

A third approach is that cattle and other ruminants can be reared on land unsuited to other food-producing purposes and create useful by-products. Additionally, in mixed-farming systems, animals recycle nutrients and re-fertilise soils with their dung, fostering a new generation of crops and pasture. In other words, this method prioritises the effectiveness of resource use, rather than the simple ‘efficiency’ of its use.

A shift in agricultural use would also have human benefits. Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture (of which more than three-quarters is for livestock). As Figure 10 shows, this leaves only 37 per cent for forests, 11 per cent as shrubs and grasslands, one per cent as freshwater coverage and the remaining one per cent is for urban areas.

Figure 10: Global land use (in per cent and m km2)
Source: Our World in Data, 201926

“If we shifted from animal agriculture to more plant-based foods, it’s amazing the amount of land we would free,” says Behrens. “The cost we pay for it is high, we don’t have access to nature because it’s farmland, we have air and water pollution, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, the list goes on. There would be space left for a small amount of animal agriculture after such a shift, but it would be extremely small compared to today.”

A dietary shift from animal-based to plant-based foods in richer countries could reduce greenhouse gas emissions

According to research by online journal Nature Food,27 a dietary shift from animal-based to plant-based foods in richer countries could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from direct agricultural production and increase carbon sequestration if the released land is restored to natural vegetation. In particular, it estimates this double effect by simulating the adoption of the EAT–Lancet planetary health diet by 54 high-income nations representing 68 per cent of global GDP and 17 per cent of the population.

In terms of investment implications, Mathieu cites regenerative farming as an emerging area of interest, with the potential to increase yields as well as reduce soil erosion, and water and chemicals run-off, which is a big cause of pollution in rivers and oceans.

“We're trying to invest in this as a theme, but it's still quite hard to find listed companies that are doing and making money out of it on a sufficient scale,” she says.

Nudges and policy action: Shifting the food culture

In her book Can fixing dinner fix the planet? US scientist Jessica Fanzo challenged readers to think about bananas in their local grocery store. Unless the shopper is living in a tropical region where bananas are grown, they will have travelled a great distance and at great expense – having been picked, washed and packaged on plantations, travelled on cargo ships to trading ports, held in temperature-controlled warehouses, and then trucked to retail outlets for sale, where they are handled by store associates before landing on kitchen counters.

Your decision to put that bunch of bananas – or beef or sugar or palm oil product – in your shopping cart has a butterfly effect

“Your decision to put that bunch of bananas – or beef or sugar or palm oil product – in your shopping cart has a butterfly effect,” she wrote. “It may seem like a trivial decision, but it impacts the global food system, the people that shape and rely on it, and the environment that supports it.”

Eating a local diet can help reduce carbon footprints, as well as the environmental and potential labour issues involved in growing and transporting food. But changing food culture will be a key piece of the jigsaw. There are two types of incentives: economic and cultural – a higher price for meat (which should encourage people to look at vegetarian options) and seeing everybody else doing it. Both create a feedback loop.

“Behavioural change is a really important tool we have at our disposal. It's difficult to tell people what to do, it doesn't work. And there is a big disconnect between intent and action,” says Bordier.

There are a number of initiatives helping drive change. Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of Leon Restaurants, worked on the National Food Strategy,28 a review of the UK food system that includes recommendations for the government to make diets healthier and more sustainable. These include a National Food System Data Programme to collect and share data and creating a target to improve diet-related health through a Good Food Bill.

South Korea and Japan, for example, have much lower rates of obesity than most developed countries, with diets high in fish and plants and low in meat and sugary drinks. Both have achieved this through policies to protect traditional cuisines, such as compulsory school lunches, government-funded lessons on how to prepare traditional food, and marketing campaigns.

WRI, meanwhile, launched the Cool Food pledge,29 with the intent of mobilising companies to reduce the climate impact of their meals by 25 per cent by 2030. Figure 11 shows that by simply reducing meat and cheese by one per cent per plate, emissions per plate fell by 16 per cent between the base year and 2020.

WRI works with organisations that provide meals to the public, such as restaurant chains, companies and universities – offering a playbook and insight on how to put an action plan in place. “Things don't happen by themselves, especially when it comes to shopping habits. You need to do something to cause change to happen,” adds Bordier.

Figure 11: Reduction in emissions through the Cool Food Pledge - food purchases

Base year

2020

Source: ‘Cool Food pledge’, 202030

The Food Foundation launched the #endchildfoodpoverty campaign31 and advertised fruit and vegetables with ITV via a big campaign for children called Veg Power.32

To help people engage with a sustainable diet, a concerted effort is needed to identify and address the major blockers – from food not being available in supermarkets or restaurants to people not knowing how to prepare it. Education is important but won’t drive changes in behaviours by itself.

It’s important to support people by educating them on the right products to buy and how to cook with them

“We need an enabling environment – it’s important to support people by educating them on the right products to buy and how to cook with them, but those products need to be available in shops and restaurants and at the right prices so they’re affordable for the average person,” says Trewern.

According to the National Food Strategy, there are five factors that influence dietary choices: price/affordability, availability, convenience, marketing and taste. People need nudges – from restaurants, supermarkets, governments, and influencers – to help them make the right choices.

For example, restaurants having more vegetarian options, integrating them with meat sections and putting them near the top of the menu where they are more visible would increase the likelihood people will choose them. Additionally, the language used around food is very important. This could mean moving away from terms like vegetarian and vegan because they have negative associations for some consumers.

Similarly, retailers could nudge customers towards healthier, more sustainable products. Research shows promotions drive uptake, and retailers could also include a diverse range of different types of plant-based food.

Figure 12: Examples of changes - product

Meat reduction

Reduce the amount of meat in a dish while increasing the amount of plants

Flavour improvement

Improve the flavour and texture of plant-rich dishes

'Plant-rich' day

Introduce one 'plant-rich' day per week, when all dishes served are plant-rich only

Appearance improvement

Improve the appearance of plant-rich dishes

Variety increased

Increase the variety of plant-rich dishes on offer

Quantity increased

Increase the relative number of plant-rish dishes on offer compared to meat-based dishes

Alternatives

Introduce plant-rich alternatives to popular meat dishes

Source: Aviva Investors, 2022. Data from WRI, 201933

However, retailers and restaurants must balance such initiatives with the commercial reality their decisions are driven by consumer demand signals.

“There's work to be done in terms of helping drive those demand signal changes and that can be through things like influencing social norms so that meat-reduced diets are seen as the default and norm, rather than something different and unusual,” says Trewern.

Policies that influence how food is produced can also influence how it’s consumed

Both carrot and stick approaches are needed to drive change at scale. “Policies that influence how food is produced can also influence how it’s consumed. For example, a carbon tax on food production would influence product prices, and ultimately the price consumers pay in the shops,” she adds.

Subsidies for sustainable food could also play an important role, and governments could lead by example, making sure the food served in government-run services such as hospitals and schools is in line with guidance.

Countries will need a rebalancing of agricultural policies and incentives across the food supply chain. Nutrition-sensitive social protection policies will be critical to increase the purchasing power and affordability of healthy diets for the most vulnerable populations.

Investment opportunities

The drive to change dietary habits is bringing investment opportunities and risks. According to the Good Food Institute, the US plant-based retail market grew 27 per cent last year, almost twice the growth for total retail food sales.34 But while the focus is on companies developing products as close to meat as possible – via companies such as Beyond Meat – cellular agriculture, the production of agricultural goods through cell cultures, is another area of interest.

According to a survey by Barclays,35 two-thirds would be willing to purchase cultured meat globally. Agronomics is a venture-capital firm is focused on opportunities within this field and has positions in about 18 of these start-ups.

“We expect huge growth in cell-based technology over the longer term,” says Toub. “But it’s quite a lot for some people to get their heads around the fact they are going to be eating a digitally printed steak from animal cells. The labelling of these products will be very important and determine broader acceptance levels.”

Moving away from meat substitutes, investors can explore other options, like vegetable proteins and insects. Plant-based milks have also seen vast growth rates. As per Future Market Insights (FMI), the overall market value is expected to reach $31 billion by 2031.36

Another way to look at opportunities is through supply chains. For example, Danish bioscience company Chr. Hansen is working to reduce artificial additives and increase the shelf life of foods like yogurt and meats using fermentation and new cultures, having set itself a goal of reducing yogurt waste by two million tonnes by 2025. Brazilian meatpacker Minerva, meanwhile, has a joint venture with US biotech firm Amyris to develop fermentation techniques to elongate the shelf life of meat, helping reduce waste and energy throughout the whole supply chain.

In terms of food efficiency, the localisation of production will be a key area for improvement, including through indoor vertical farming.

We have one of the global leaders in terms of vertical farming just across the channel in the Netherlands

“We have one of the global leaders in terms of vertical farming across the channel, in the Netherlands. Huge improvements could be made in terms of our carbon footprint if products started to come from Netherlands instead of being flown in from South America or Africa,” says Toub. “The amount of water usage, labour, and carbon transportation costs could be significantly improved.” 

The development of land-based aquacultures, including the production of salmon close to end markets, also has potential, reducing the environmental impact to biodiversity in the sea. One company active in this area is Norway’s Atlantic Sapphire, which listed in May 2020.

“It is in the process of constructing a huge plant in Miami where its carbon footprint from shipping to the US market will be much lower. It’s a closed-circuit water system, so it’s basically like having fish floating around in a water-treatment plant,” says Toub. “There's a lot of improvement, both from biodiversity impact as it solves issues such as sea lice and disease management in the fish population without the need for antibiotics, limiting their ability to enter our food system.”

Engagement

As well as investing directly in companies, investors have a key role to play through engagement. Different parts of the population need support in different ways – it is a question of finding the right messages and approaches. Some are already making changes and need to be helped to do more; some are the middle, thinking about it but don’t know how to start, and then there is that group that hasn't really thought about it.

We have seen the impact of investor needs driving change in healthy foods sold in supermarkets. For example, Tesco committed to boost sales of healthy foods after investor pressure (among other factors).37

A lot more needs to be done to facilitate a transition to sustainable diets, and finance has a key role

“A lot more needs to be done to facilitate a transition to sustainable diets, and finance has a key role. Investors can actively drive change by focusing their investment on businesses that are tackling the health and environmental impacts of food production and consumption, for example plant-based innovation but also regenerative production practices and farming models. Transparency is also a key issue, and investors should seek to support companies that are transparent about their protein portfolios and are taking action to diversify their portfolio and support better production practices through their supply chain,” says Trewern.

Investor initiatives include FAIRR, a coalition of firms (including Aviva Investors) that collectively manage $48 trillion of assets. It has led efforts around sustainable proteins, meeting with companies to understand how they are trying to transition into producing plant-based meals and meat substitutes.

“We have seen very positive results from our engagements with players like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, which have been investing in and increasing the amount of plant-based meals they offer in supermarkets,” says Andrea Perales Padron, ESG analyst for the consumer sector at Aviva Investors.

“The case of supermarkets serves as a very good example of how we are engaging with different players in the value chain to bring the theoretical discussion of environmentally sustainable diets to consumers’ fingertips,” he adds.

These big market participants can move the needle by expanding the diversity of their suppliers into plant-based meals

“These big market participants can move the needle by expanding the diversity of their suppliers into plant-based meals, providing new, exciting companies with a platform. They are also fundamental in driving the change in consumer preferences by providing accessibility and diversity of choice – after all, convenience remains key. This is not to shy away from the vast efforts needed to address traditional supply chains and sourcing practices, such as that of beef, but in shifting demand we are also tackling the other end of the value chain.”

Indeed, even though Tesco is doing a better job, there is still risk around its supply chain. Greenpeace conducted a big campaign against the company, as the UK supermarket buys meat from companies contributing to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and sells chicken and pork fed on soya cultivated from deforested land in Brazil.38

“We are living in a society where consumers increasingly vote with their feet, avoiding some brands and migrating towards others that reflect their own sustainability views. This causes a big brand risk around not doing the right thing, which is driving many companies to re-analyse their sustainability footprints,” says Toub.

As people understand the impact of their diets it's going to be a really exciting time to see how rapidly things shift

The bottom line is that as the scrutiny intensifies on these issues, not least because diet is such a key part of the discussion on net-zero targets, we could see many technological innovations over the next 15 years.

“As people take more responsibility and understand the impact of their diets, especially the younger generations are more willing to accept a change, it's going to be a really exciting time to see how rapidly things shift,” says Toub.

References

  1. ‘The National Food Strategy: The plan’, National Food Strategy, July 2021
  2. ‘Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions’, Nature Food, March 8, 2021
  3. ‘Global agriculture towards 2050’, High Level Expert Forum, October 2009
  4. Tim Searchinger, et al., ‘Creating a sustainable food future: A menu of solutions to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050’, World Resources Institute, December 2018
  5. ‘The National Food Strategy: The plan’, National Food Strategy, July 2021
  6. Helen Harwatt, ‘Substituting beans for beef as a contribution towards US climate change targets’, May 17, 2017
  7. Katherine Sacks, ‘Two new books explore individual action and the impact of a climate change diet’, September 21, 2021
  8. ‘The National Food Strategy: The plan’, National Food Strategy, July 2021
  9. ‘Grazed and confused?’, Food Climate Research Network, 2017
  10. Paul Greenberg, ‘The climate diet: 50 simple ways to trim your carbon footprint’, January 1, 1990
  11. ‘The planetary health diet’, EAT, 2022
  12. ‘The impacts in each country’, WWF Plant-based diets, 2022
  13. ‘The state of food security and nutrition in the world 2021: Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all’, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2021
  14. ‘The National Food Strategy: The plan’, National Food Strategy, July 2021
  15. ‘Current status and response to the global obesity pandemic: Proceedings of a workshop’, National Academies Press, June 25, 2019
  16. ‘The state of food security and nutrition in the world 2021: Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all’, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2021
  17. ‘The state of food security and nutrition in the world 2021: Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all’, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2021
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