Academic attacks government sustainable food freeze

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sustainability

Academic attacks government sustainable food freeze
The co-author of an influential new report on UK food policy has hit out at the coalition government for its inertia on sustainable food policy since it came to power in May 2010.

Professor Tim Lang of the Food Policy Department, City University London, co-authored the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) report ‘Looking back, looking forward: sustainability and UK food policy 2010-2011’, ​which urges the government to up the pace of change in moving food systems towards “truly sustainable food”.

This is in light of biodiversity loss, carbon dioxide emissions (with 25% of all lorries on UK roads involved in food transport in 2008 and 50% of these running empty) water stress, volatile international relations threatening supplies, diet inequalities, social affordability, food waste (30% by value across UK households) and record oil prices of $200 per barrel.

One of coalition government’s early moves after taking office involved abolishing funding for the SDC in July 2010, and assessing the administration's record to date on sustainable food, Lang told “They’re doing nothing we can see, they’ve frozen. I had a meeting at the Commons recently with food industry insiders, retailers, industry people and we all agreed this.

"The lack of continuity is not helpful – if we really want to change things we can’t have a stop/start approach ​[from a policy perspective].​ This reflects the report's insistence that, after a "genuinely consensual perspective’​"seemed to have taken root and a policy process began, it seemed to go into "suspended animation" ​after the 2010 general election.

Big Society ain’t working…

“The Big Society ain’t gonna sort out government catering procurement ​[of sustainable food] the food manufacturing sector, or Tesco,”​ said Lang; his report urges the government to re-energise integrated policy thinking by engaging with commercial bodies, civil society and scientists.

“Caroline Spelman ​[Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, (DEFRA)] was pressed by the NFU ​[National Farmers' Union] president on my report about a month ago, and asked ‘Where’s the food plan?’. All she could say was ‘Err…we’ve got Food 2030' ​[DEFRA's food strategy paper published under the last Labour government] but that was written in January 2010!”

The SDC's final report insists that that a market-driven approach supporting sustainable food, or leaving change to consumers are “facile policy positions in the face of such a systems challenge​[biodiversity loss, water stress, volatile international relations, diet inequalities, social affordability] continuity and clarity of long-term purpose is important and this need is reflected in some of our recommendations.”

More food, less land

Necessary changes we will need to make, the SDC report says, include producing more food on a global scale from less land, eating more plant-based foods and less meat and dairy (given its high use of grain) and to “waste dramatically less”.

Despite some progress in the 2000s in promoting sustainability across food systems, which led to the publication of Food 2030 vision, the report said not enough had occurred to dispel the SDC's concern about the “failure to achieve systemic change”​.

The SDC's four priorities for action include:

1. Real government leadership for sustainable food​: “Full ownership”​ of Food 2030 as the first step towards an integrated policy, supported by a new DEFRA-led delivery programme by September 2011 with a delivery plan moving from the short- (2020) to long-term (2050).

Other recommendations include DEFRA, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health encouraging new local food partnerships, to involve local bodies in the push for more sustainable UK food systems by 2030; an expert advisory body should also advise the government on sustainable food systems.

2. Sustainable food chains​: DEFRA and the devolved administrations should promote the production of more food by sustainable means in the UK, with the priority given to horticulture, particularly fruit and lower GHG impact of meat and dairy production.

The SDC says an inquiry should examine rebuilding support for small farmers and the rise of part-time farming, with attention to capital availability, skills, education, labour and biodiversity. Meanwhile, the Common Agricultural Policy should develop into a Common Sustainable Food Policy on an EU level.

The Debartment of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) should also lend support to build skills, research capabilities and infrastructure to support thriving small businesses in the food sector, and establish local food hubs. There should also be mandatory health and sustainability standards for all publicly procured food.

3. Sustainable Consumption: ​The SDC says UK public bodies (led by DEFRA with other departments) need to define sustainable diets, and address policy accordingly; DEFRA’s forthcoming waste strategy should prioritise reduce food waste, including the goal of zero waste to landfill by 2015.

Meanwhile, a joint working party of academics, consumer groups and industry experts should look at ways of making consumer behaviour more sustainable.

4. Fairness: ​The SDC recommends that the Groceries Code Adjudicator and Competition Commission reference terms should involve explicit sustainability criteria, while government departments should make the concept and delivery of Fairtrade central by consulting large food firms.

The SDC also urges the government to address food and health inequalities, with new fiscal policies making sustainable and healthy choice more affordable, where this feeds into minimum wage and benefit levels.

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