Should we ration high-carbon foods?

Canadian educator and writer Eleanor Boyle recently published a blog post for us on the measures that the British government took to assure domestic food security during the Second World War. You can read it here: ‘Victory is in the Kitchen’: Wartime lessons for today’s food systems?

Eleanor argues that today’s environmental crisis requires a strong policy response, which could draw inspiration from some of the elements of the UK’s WWII food policy. Her policy suggestions for today include:

  • Running a portion of food systems for the public good rather than for profit
  • Mandatory measures to lower food waste
  • Low-cost restaurants to provide subsidised meals
  • And, perhaps most controversially, rationing certain foods with a high carbon footprint.

What do you think of the idea of rationing high-carbon foods?

The idea of personal carbon allowances is more often floated in relation to carbon-intensive activities such as flying, or overall carbon footprint from purchases, but remains highly contentious. But while long-haul flights are (in many circumstances) optional and are used by only a small proportion of the UK population, rationing certain foods has the potential to affect many more people.

Some issues that might arise:

  • There is controversy over how best to measure the climate impact of some foods, particularly meat and milk from grazing ruminants, with some arguing that soil carbon sequestration can be significant, and others arguing that conventional carbon footprints do not reflect the true “carbon opportunity cost” of not restoring native ecosystems on the large areas of land that are grazed - not all of which would naturally be areas of grassland.
  • Different people have different health needs; could any food rationing system truly respect the changing dietary requirements of individuals without being overly bureaucratic?
  • How would the system account for other environmental impact categories, such as land use, biodiversity, and so on?
  • Rationing certain foods could be hugely unpopular when there is no actual shortage of them. Might this only serve to turn people against other environmental measures?

Share your thoughts below!