Sustainable food production and healthy eating strategies under threat

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The Sustainable Development Commission has been axed, the Food Standards Agency has had its powers stripped and DEFRA appears to be stalling. Where then does this leave planning for a national sustainable food strategy - and healthy eating plan - asks Nick Hughes?

The self-styled ‘greenest government ever’ has been in power for over a year yet its contribution towards delivering a sustainable food strategy for the UK remains embarrassingly meagre.

Against the backdrop of soaring global food prices, which this month Oxfam chillingly predicted will double by 2030, the need to reduce the UK’s exposure to commodity price volatility has never been greater. However, progress to put in place a national strategy for long term sustainable food production and consumption has ground to a near halt since the coalition assumed office.

In his final report in March this year as commissioner on the now defunct Sustainable Development Commission, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, wrote that work on food sustainability went into ‘suspended animation’ after the 2010 election. Three months on and Lang has no reason to alter his opinion. ‘Nothing has happened at all. No initiatives have taken place and the progress which was being made under Labour with cross party support has just stopped,’ he told the Ecologist.

Lang is a food policy doyen who has advised successive governments on issues of health and sustainability. He describes government action on food security over the course of the previous decade as ‘crabby and reluctant’ and says that it took two events - the spike in food prices and revelations as to the extent of the country’s obesity crisis - that occurred towards the end of the last decade to frighten the Labour government into action. The upshot was the publication of the seminal 2008 document Food Matters, which identified the importance of food security to the long term prosperity of the UK and spawned the Food 2030 document of January 2010, which set out a vision for how this strategy could be delivered.

Sustainable diets

A key plank of Food 2030 was the need for central government to provide a definition of a sustainable diet in order to give consumers guidance on how they themselves could contribute towards future food sustainability through the products they purchased and how they used and disposed of them. By this stage, two government agencies – the Food Standards Agency and the Sustainable Development Commission – had already begun work on how to incorporate sustainable eating into healthy eating advice, resulting in the publication in December 2009 of an SDC document called Setting The Table in which Lang suggested some high priority win win measures that consumers could take to improve the sustainability of their diet.

The top tier advice included reducing food waste, cutting down on junk food and eating less meat and dairy, while he also advocated eating seasonal food, cutting out bottled water and shopping on foot or over the internet.

The government’s intention was to fine-tune the guidelines and then incorporate them into the Food Standards Agency’s Eatwell plate, which advises consumers on how to maintain a healthy diet. Yet less than three months into the coalition’s tenure both the FSA and SDC had lost their remit on sustainable eating. The SDC was axed as part of the bonfire of the quangos and the FSA responsibilities for nutrition and sustainability were folded into the Department of Health and Defra.

Since then, the silence on sustainable eating advice has been deafening.
Lang believes the government’s inertia is primarily driven by an internal focus at Defra brought about by crippling budget cuts – at 30 per cent the most severe of any government department. ‘All my intelligence both inside and outside of Defra says the reason nothing is happening is entirely and solely because the department has been... internally focused. You can’t expect government policy to move forward on something as huge as food and sustainability unless there are people to shepherd it, audit it, chair it facilitate it, do all the things that civil servants do,’ he said.

Political questions

In Defra’s 2011-2015 Business Plan, the sustainable consumption agenda is conspicuous by its absence - replaced by nebulous discourse on the need for more sustainable production albeit with very few practical examples of how this will be achieved. Meanwhile, the lack of evidence of delivery of policies set out in Food 2030 has prompted MPs to question the government’s progress in this area.

On 5 April this year Labour MP William Bain tabled a question in the Commons on what steps the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had taken to implement the terms of the Food 2030 plan since May 2010. The answer, offered by Agriculture and Food Minister Jim Paice, cites numerous reviews, engagements and pieces of research but very few decisive actions. On the issue of sustainable diets specifically, the Minister points vaguely to the commissioning of ‘research to develop the evidence base on sustainable, healthy diets’, which in itself suggests a regression from the point of defining a sustainable diet reached by the SDC 18 months ago.

One Westminster source close to Defra concedes that ‘they [Defra] really haven’t done very much at all’ in taking forward the Food 2030 plan, and reveals that the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee is still awaiting a government response to its request for a document updating progress on delivery of Food 2030.

'Clear messages'

Unsurprisingly, the government itself is reluctant to divulge too much information on its strategy, preferring to deal in generalities. In answer to a question on what steps it has taken to provide integrated healthy and sustainable eating advice to consumers, a spokesperson for Defra says: ‘We encourage people to eat a more sustainable diet, and we are working with the Department of Health, NGOs and the industry to create clear messages that will help consumers understand the impact of the food they choose.’

The only sign of affirmative action is in the forthcoming publication of new Government Buying Standards for public sector food, which aim to cost-effectively increase the amount of food bought by government departments and their agencies to British or equivalent standards, including sustainability standards. However, these standards will only be mandatory for central government and, furthermore, there is no clue offered as to how sustainability standards will be defined. Given that the Healthier Food Mark - the only previous attempt at establishing guidelines for procuring healthy, sustainable public sector food - was dropped last year it seems unlikely that a rigorous formula will be applied.

Another dynamic to consider in the sustainable food equation is the role of industry. The food industry has always sought to resist prescriptive advice on what people should eat and lobbied hard behind the scenes for the FSA to lose its responsibilities for driving nutrition policy, having opposed the agency’s preferred system of traffic light nutritional labelling from the outset.

Constraints and lobbying

There is evidence that a similarly combative stance has been adopted on the issue of defining a sustainable diet. In a recent submission to the Environmental Audit Committee’s consultation on sustainable food, the Food and Drink Federation, the body that represents food manufacturers, wrote that models of sustainable diets are ‘restrictive and prescriptive in terms of consumer choice’ and ‘impose constraints on manufacturers and retailers in terms of potential sourcing’. In 2009, meanwhile, the same organisation labelled Lang’s effort at defining a healthy, low environmental impact diet in his Setting The Table report as ‘at best simplistic and at worst deliberately disingenuous’, before going on to argue that defining a sustainable diet was an inherently paradoxical task.

To a degree the FDF has a point. The difficulties in defining a sustainable diet are myriad and inevitably involve trade-offs between competing factors such as nutrition, animal welfare, carbon, water and economic sustainability. Fish is a classic example of a food where potential for conflict is rife as the common assumption that fish is good for you must be balanced with the fact that stocks of many of the most popular varieties of fish are severely depleted.

In any given choice equation conflicts are likely to emerge. Is a tomato grown in the UK under artificial light more sustainable than one grown naturally in Spain but shipped in? Should consumers favour a Fairtrade rose grown in a water scarce region of Africa over a domestically produced flower? How economically sustainable is an organic chicken when the retail price is double that of a bird produced to poorer welfare standards? The answer, invariably, will lie in the priorities of the individual consumer. Yet all the while no template for sustainable eating exists, consumers are lacking a vital tool needed to make the most informed possible purchasing decision.

Retail responses

To say the entire food industry is inherently anti-sustainability would be wrong. There are ample examples throughout the food supply chain of manufacturers and retailers reducing the carbon and water footprints of their operations and moderating the volume of waste sent to landfill. The British Retail Consortium has come out in favour of the government prescribing a sustainable diet while some supermarkets are taking matters into their own hands and choice editing products on sustainability grounds. Sainsbury’s decision to stock only Fairtrade bananas and Tesco’s move to take out frosted and white light bulbs and replace them with energy-saving bulbs are just two examples of retailers taking the responsibility for making sustainable purchasing decisions away from consumers.

But there are limits to what businesses alone can achieve. ‘It’s taken some bold leadership by some of the supermarket chains to start to get consumers to understand about things like Marine Stewardship Council fish and sustainably sourced food but I don’t think there’s much price elasticity there,’ says Shaun McCarthy, director of sustainable procurement consultancy Action Sustainability. ‘There may be certain groups of people who are prepared to pay more for things like organic or sustainably sourced food but I think the vast majority still expect supermarkets both to be competitive and to do the right thing.’

The hardest challenge for retailers, according to Jack Cunningham, Sainsbury’s head of climate change and environment, is how to engage the consumer on the issue of sustainable consumption. ‘It’s not a challenge that we’re shirking away from; but I also think wider society plays a part here - it’s not just down to retail, it’s not just down to business, it’s down to wider civil society, central government and local government as well as individuals taking responsibility for their own actions.’

The British Retail Consortium, in its own submission to the Environment Agency’s consultation, says only government can define what a healthy, sustainable diet entails and goes on to criticise the coalition for failing to progress the work that went into Food 2030.

The fact is that as long as the diets of UK consumers are significant contributors to critical sustainability issues such as climate change, biodiversity and land and water use, the need for government to take ownership of the food sustainability agenda will remain paramount. For every day the government resists giving consumers the help they need to make sustainable choices, the long-term security of our food supply will look that little bit bleaker. 


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