Mission impossible?

Tom Cruise fans waiting for the latest instalment next month have already seen a car chase trailer with a 5 series 540i BMW. Even driven much more carefully than in the film, this gas guzzler struggles to do better than 20 miles per gallon.

Since 2020, the EU law regulating emissions has required every car manufacturer to meet an average emissions target for new cars across their whole fleet. This means they could moderately lower the emissions across all the cars they produce; or keep selling some gas guzzlers, if the rest of their fleet makes up for it in very low emissions. This allows them to wash the dirty with the clean – but also comes with eye-watering levies for every gram of CO2 per km they go above the target. BMW’s new cars now average around 100g CO2 /km – much better than the 200g CO2 the 540i does in the lab. By 2025 they’ll have to halve this figure again.

So what’s any of this got to do with food? We can only meet our goals for health, climate change and nature if retailers and caterers collectively align what they sell us with what our bodies and our planet need.

This means taking a system-wide view, much like the EU approach to reducing emissions from cars and vans. Just as (for the next few years at least) BMW can sell a few gas-guzzlers as long as it mostly sells electric Minis, we will still be able to enjoy some meat and crisps and cake as long as we get more veg and fibre.

The principle is the same, and the market is similarly dominated by a small number of data-rich businesses. Those who provide us with mobility have to take responsibility for making that mobility compatible with a liveable planet. And those who supply us with nutrition have to take responsibility for ensuring the food they sell us will keep us healthy and well while restoring nature and climate.

Of course, it’s more complicated and contested to benchmark each food product for climate, nature and health than just to measure car emissions. Though not impossible: Tesco are already working with WWF on the environmental footprint of the UK shopping basket.

There’s a powerful case for this sort of approach. The food system is responsible for up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and has been the main driver of global biodiversity loss. No European countries are on track to meet their healthy weight targets for 2025.

On weight targets in particular, there’s been some recent attempts to change the food environment. This include the ban on multibuy promotions of junk food, and mandatory calorie labelling on out of home foods.

Both these measures are well-intentioned . But they don’t focus on the big picture. A couple of dozen major food businesses shape our planet and our health, even more than the carmakers. A campaign to make all car chases in movies feature only electric vehicles would only take us so far.

A progressive levy on turnover depending on how far food businesses are off target in relation to health, climate and nature would not meet initially with universal acclaim. But it would have much more impact over time than voluntary initiatives and consumer nudging.