Last week, I was honoured to present at City University of London's Food Thinkers Conference. My speech (watch it here) focused on how our project of transforming food systems to be sustainable, healthy, and just can and should use lessons from a food-system transformation from World War II Britain. That was when British agriculture, supply networks, and citizen diets underwent major shifts to ensure people would have enough to eat during the chaos of war. And though these wartime food programs were designed to help win a war, they are echoed by current ideas about sustainable agriculture and diets: food was more locally grown, more plant-based, more productive per unit of land, less processed, and much lower in food waste. The unprecedented and complex project of transforming a food system was far from perfect, but yielded a level of citizen sustenance and morale that helped deliver victory plus significant co-benefits—like healthier diets, especially for low-income citizens, and revitalization of the British farm sector.
My presentation to Food Thinkers told this food story, drawing connections between its outcomes and current quests to address multiple food-system challenges. And I suggested we emulate these bold, often-mandatory wartime approaches to help reach today's goals for climate, biodiversity, equality, access to healthy food, and dignified farm livelihoods. These approaches include rationing of high-emissions practices, like meat consumption, on which Centre for Food Policy founder (as well as my mentor and author of the foreword to my new book on this topic) Professor Emeritus Tim Lang offered the following observation:
“The rationing issue goes to the heart of the cultural dimension of diet and food systems. There are big differences between now and the 1940s in skills, food tastes and assumptions. Rationing in WW2 built on 3 years [of experience] in WW1 (only 20 years earlier). Today, almost no one has experienced rationing. It ended in UK in 1954. So isn't the rationing issue an impossible shift to 'win'? There have been 60 years of consumerism and 'consumer choice' ideology since WW2.”
Professor Lang's comment is probably on many people’s minds when I speak about bold approaches. It deserves a fuller response than I was able to offer following my presentation, so I'd like to respond to four elements of it here.
(1) British citizens of the 1940s were indeed different from people today in “skills, food tastes and assumptions.” Yet we can over-emphasize differences and forget the basic commonalities among human beings, especially in crisis. Nearly 70 years after the onset of WWII, we still care about our legacies and our children's and grandchildren's wellbeing. We admire preparedness, courage, and leadership in crisis. We care about doing the right thing. We value health, equity, thriving local agriculture, clean water, and compassionate treatment of animals. When faced with scarcity, we get on board with conservation and resourcefulness, and eschew wastefulness.
(2) It is true that today, almost no one has experienced rationing. Does that make it “an impossible shift to win”? Perhaps, and you may feel that food-movement work should focus on shifts that are easier to achieve. That's reasonable. Yet change is more likely to emerge from multi-faceted approaches. Some of us activists feel moved to promote controversial approaches. And research suggests that younger generations are much more open than people in our generation to substantial lifestyle changes (including reduction of meat intake) to mitigate climate change, because they have to live with it.
Millions do want to take bold steps. By example: For decades I gave community presentations on the negative impacts of industrial meat, suggesting that participants consider eating even a little less meat. I had believed that no one would voluntarily go further than a Meat-Free Monday approach. Yet over the past few years, I have been shocked at what feels like a global tsunami of plant-based, or even completely vegan, eating. Suddenly there are millions of people who don't want to take a small step, but a big one. They are appalled with the ways we treat animals and the planet. I believe that, as in wartime, such people want to be called to service for their societies—for ecosystems, animals, and health. I believe we need to recognize the existence of many who absolutely want to do their bit.
(3) The concept of “rationing” needs a rethink. Not only does the word conjure images of war, but it suggests a top-down approach, which Lang and others have written about as problematic today.
In the past, British thinkers have proposed alternative terms like carbon allowances. Because emissions include methane and nitrous oxide along with carbon dioxide, perhaps we should call it “emissions allowances.” How about we take the concept of people’s “rights” to eat as much meat as they like, and use that word to ecological advantage? Instead of rationing rights to pollute, we could call it “personal emissions rights.” I concede that we need a memorable and upbeat acronym – suggestions welcome!
(4) It is very true that we've had decades of "consumerism and 'consumer choice' ideology" since World War II.
It is also so apt to regard our shared sense of entitlement to unchecked consumption as deeply ideological. But norms and even ideologies do shift, sometimes rapidly. Attitudes and behaviour can change. Like the “idealists” of decades past who foresaw grand shifts that others thought would never happen (like the demise of racial segregation, voting rights for women, and marriage equality), I applaud and support those aiming for incremental changes to our food system. But I am optimistic that we are capable of much more.
I've been finding inspiration in Hannah Ritchie's 2023 Ted Talk, in which she expresses genuine belief that her generation does not need to be the planet's last. It may instead be the first – to be sustainable. I hope this conversation continues.