Low-income households face barriers to eating sustainable diets and must be better supported if UK is to meet Net Zero target

Climate change

Low-income households face barriers to eating sustainable diets and must be better supported if UK is to meet net zero target

A new briefing from The Food Foundation highlights that low-income households face a range of barriers in accessing and affording a climate-friendly diet.

Challenges include the relative price of plant foods (such as vegetables and plant-based alternatives) compared to animal source foods, and additional issues such as appliance and fuel poverty.

These barriers make it harder for people living on low incomes to eat plant foods and achieve a sustainable, low carbon diet.

If the UK government is to meet its Net Zero by 2050 target, Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGEs) from the food system will need to be reduced by shifting UK diets (so that they contain more plant foods and fewer animal foods) and reducing food waste.

In the UK, meat accounts for the largest proportion of GHGEs associated with diet (32%), with an additional 14% from dairy products, while post-farm gate food waste is estimated to contribute 25 million tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to around 5% of the UK’s domestic GHGEs.

In a new briefing published today, The Food Foundation explores whether reducing the emissions footprint of UK diets is equally achievable for different income groups.

Although existing studies looking at average diets and modelling the required changes suggest that, in theory, low emission diets can be affordable, the briefing identifies that in practice such diets can be more expensive and inaccessible for low income households.

Plant-based meat and dairy alternatives currently come with a price premium (more sustainable plant-based alternatives to chicken, for example, are approximately 27% more expensive than chicken breast) while vegetables are expensive in comparison to animal foods, with fruit and vegetables costing an average of £11.79 per 1,000 calories compared to £8.00 for animal based foods.

Figures from the government’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey show that the lowest-earning households consume less fruit and veg than higher income households – with just 58% getting their 5-a-day compared to 88% of high income households.

Affordable and accessible alternatives to animal source food

While vegetables and plant-based meat alternatives present various challenges for low-income households, the briefing highlights the opportunities that pulses and legumes – such as beans, lentils and chickpeas - offer as cheaper protein alternatives to meat.

Evidence suggests that low levels of buying and consuming pulses are due to the poor availability of pulse-based food options as well as low levels of familiarity with and social acceptability of these products – i.e. time, familiarity, and the perceived difficulty of cooking with pulses are the main barriers to increased consumption rather than price.

The briefing finds that in the UK, individuals buy an average of just 28g of pulses, legumes and bean per person per week, equivalent to less than half a single portion of vegetables (80g).

In order to make the required shift away from animal source food and high levels of food waste, The Food Foundation is calling on the government and businesses to do the following:

1.    Make low emission foods like vegetables and pulses more affordable, available and appealing by:

  • a.    Acknowledging the need to transition UK diets towards less meat and include this in the government’s Net Zero strategy
  • b.    Strengthening government procurement rules for schools, hospitals, prisons and other public spaces
  • c.    Promoting the production and increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and legumes, in part through supporting the UK horticulture sector 
  • d.    Introducing mandatory reporting (including food waste metrics) for large food businesses to de-risk business investment in healthy and sustainable food offerings.

2.    Make meat and dairy plant-based alternatives more affordable, available and appealing;


  • a.    Businesses and investors should improve and invest in the taste, and nutritional profile of plant-based meat alternatives
  • b.    Government should use fiscal incentives to rebalance the cost of the basket – e.g. removing VAT from plant-based milk alternatives (meat and dairy are currently VAT exempt).

Anna Taylor, Executive Director of The Food Foundation, said: "The window of opportunity for averting the worst impacts of climate change is closing rapidly.

"If we have any chance of meeting the UK’s Net Zero target, which the government has committed in law to meet by 2050, we urgently need a strategy for supporting people to shift their diets towards more plant foods, with less meat and dairy.

"Such diets need to be affordable and accessible for everyone, otherwise we risk sleepwalking into a food environment where more sustainable diets are the preserve only of the wealthy, with a widening of the already very steep dietary inequalities we see in the UK."

Jo Trewern, Head of Policy (Consumption) at WWF, said: "At a time of escalating food bills, and as a key step to address the climate and nature crises, it’s vital to ensure everyone can access and afford the nutritious food they need to live healthy lives.

"It’s great to see clear focus on ensuring that healthy and sustainable food is available, affordable and accessible for everyone, both now and in the future, and it’s clear that both governments and businesses must step up to make healthy, sustainable food, the easy choice."

Simon Billing, Executive Director of Eating Better, said: "Reaching our ambitions for net zero will require a significant change in the populations' diet in a way that is healthy and just.

"The Food Foundation's new report highlights the need for intervention to invest in consumption-based measures, such as Healthy Start vouchers and cash-first approaches, to make vegetables and pulses accessible to those on the lowest incomes."

Catherine Dennison, Programme Head of Welfare at The Nuffield Foundation, said: "‘The Nuffield Foundation is pleased to support the work of the Food Foundation and their role in increasing awareness of how improving our food system is fundamental for fairness and people’s well-being.

"We welcome the focus in this briefing on the importance of the food system to help achieve the UK’s climate target, and the very practical strategies government, businesses and investors can take to enable all households to contribute."


Full briefing here

In the UK, emissions from the food system account for 19% of our domestic greenhouse gas emissions (closer to 30% when emissions from imports are included) (National Food Strategy, 2021a). The Government has committed, in law, to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 (DEFRA, 2019). But emissions from food have fallen at only half the rate as emissions from the wider economy (National Food Strategy, 2021b) and if things continue as they are, emissions from the UK food system will in fact be four times higher by 2050 than the level that is needed for the UK to meet its Net Zero target.  

The Climate Change Committee (2023) recommends that in order to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions to Net Zero we need to urgently transition diets so that we are:  

A) Eating a healthy diet with less animal based food and 
B) Eliminating food waste as far as possible. 

Please contact:  

Pandora Haydon – 07789 712608 / pandora.haydon@foodfoundation.org.uk 


Rebecca Tobi – Senior Business and Investment Engagement Manager, The Food Foundation  

Anna Taylor – Executive Director, The Food Foundation  


Twitter: @Food_Foundation  

Instagram: food.foundation 

About the Food Foundation   

The Food Foundation is a charity working to influence food policy and business practice, shaping a sustainable food system which makes healthy diets affordable and accessible for all. We work in partnership with researchers, campaigners, community bodies, industry, investors, government and citizens to galvanise the UK’s diverse agents of change, using surprising and inventive ideas to drive fundamental shifts in our food system. These efforts are based on the continual re-evaluation of opportunities for action, building and synthesising strong evidence, convening powerful coalitions, harnessing citizens’ voices and delivering impactful communications.
Registered Charity Number 1187611.

With thanks to our funder, The Nuffield Foundation.  

About The Nuffield Foundation 

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.

Website: www.nuffieldfoundation.org/
Twitter: @NuffieldFound

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