Embedding sustainable development across Government, after the Secretary of State's announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by the Food Ethics Council


1.  An essential part of the role of the SDC has been to promote the social dimension of sustainable development. The Food Ethics Council's recent Food and Fairness Inquiry confirmed the continuing importance of this role, exemplified in the Inquiry's two fundamental conclusions:

  1. Social injustice is widespread throughout the UK (and global) food system; and
  2. A fairer food system is a prerequisite for meeting the wider sustainability and public health challenges that confront us today.

2.  Defra must, at the earliest opportunity, provide a detailed account of how it intends to provide the leadership on sustainable development that it has assumed from the SDC, including how it will ensure that issues of social justice are properly integrated within the overall framework for sustainable development.


3.  The Food Ethics Council (FEC) is a charity that provides independent advice on the ethics of food and farming. Our aim is to create a food system that is fair and healthy for people and the environment. In pursuit of this aim, we:

  1. Research and analyse ethical issues.
  2. Mediate between stakeholders.
  3. Develop tools for ethical decision-making.
  4. Act as honest brokers in policy and public debate.

4.  The 14 members of the FEC are all leaders in their relevant fields, and appointed as individuals. They bring a broad range of expertise to our work, from academic research through to practical knowledge of farming, business and policy.


5.  The EAC's specification of the themes for this inquiry includes the question as to which aspects of the work of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) remain of particular continuing importance. Our submission is mainly concerned with this question, and draws primarily on our recent Food and Fairness Inquiry, which examined issues of social justice in food and farming.

6.  The SDC Framework Document defines the primary aim of the SDC as being:

"to contribute to the policy goal of facilitating and accelerating progress on sustainable development, acting as an adviser, advocate and in a "watchdog" or scrutiny role to government on ways to achieve environmental, social and economic progress in an integrated way and with a view to improve quality of life for future generations." (pp. 4-5)

7.  From the FEC's perspective, two aspects of this role are especially significant, in terms of the adverse implications of the withdrawal of Defra funding: the recognition of the social dimension of sustainable development; and the emphasis on the need for an integrated approach. Social justice is central to the UK framework for sustainable development that has been in place since 2005, set out in Defra's "Securing the future: delivering the UK sustainable development strategy" report of that year. Specifically, the framework acknowledges that "ensuring a just society" and "creating equal opportunity for all" are intrinsic to the concept of sustainable development. However, the FEC has become increasingly concerned that issues of social justice are generally peripheral to debates about sustainable food - and sustainable development generally - which tend to focus instead on the environmental and economic dimensions. It was this concern that prompted us to commission our Food and Fairness Inquiry.

8.  The Food and Fairness Inquiry reached two fundamental conclusions, both of which have important implications for the Government's sustainable development strategy. The first was that social injustice is widespread throughout the UK (and global) food system. In the UK context, this includes substantial numbers of households experiencing food poverty, unequal access to healthy diets, adverse employment conditions in the agricultural sector, and the limited scope for citizens to influence food policy. If the UK's approach to sustainable development is to take the social dimension seriously, then it needs to address these facets of social injustice.

9.  The other main finding of our inquiry was that a fairer food system is in fact a prerequisite for meeting the wider sustainability and public health challenges that confront us today. For example, if we want people to eat healthier, less ecologically-costly, diets, then we have to ensure that benefit and minimum wage levels provide sufficient income to enable them to do so. The same analysis applies at the global level also, where, for example, poor rural farmers may have no option but to degrade natural resources, because they are denied access to funds necessary for investment in more sustainable farming.

10.  It is perhaps worth stressing that these conclusions were reached as a consensus among all the members of our Inquiry Committee - which included leading food industry figures such as the Chief Executive of the Food and Drink Federation, and the Food Policy Director of the British Retail Consortium, as well as academics and NGOs working on food-related issues.

11.  This brief overview of the main findings of the Food and Fairness Inquiry also highlights the importance of the second key element of the SDC's role: the need for an integrated approach to sustainable development. The barriers to sustainable development are varied and complex, and have implications for a wide range of policy areas. The policy approaches to overcoming those barriers need to respond to this variety and complexity, and will require diligent, proactive, and ongoing co-ordination across the range of government departments responsible for these areas of policy.


12.  A third key message from the Food and Fairness Inquiry was that the barriers to socially just sustainable development are rooted in structural features of "how the world works". Trade liberalisation, the role of global corporations, the influence of the financial sector, deregulation, socio-economic political orthodoxy, consumption-led growth...these are the factors that underlie the unfairness and unsustainability of our food system. This means that we must fundamentally change the way we live in order to protect the planet for future generations - that is, "business as usual is not an option".

13.  In this regard, a third element of the SDC's role cited above - the focus on the quality of life for future generations - has been crucial. Combined with its independence from government, this has enabled the SDC to look beyond the narrow confines of short-term, sector-specific policy options, and consider the more fundamental, long-term implications of the goal of sustainable development. Reports such as "Prosperity without growth?" exemplify the kind of visionary thinking that must complement more immediate policy analysis and implementation.


14.  In view of the scale and urgency of the problems we identified in our Food and Fairness Inquiry, the inclusion of "Fairness in Sustainable Development" as one of the five main themes for the SDC's latest business plan was most welcome. The FEC fully endorses the strategic outcome that is specified for this element of the SDC's work programme:

"That Government is able to use sustainable development to create policies that tackle disadvantage at the same time as reducing emissions or improving environmental quality." (p. 20)

15.  As well as re-confirming the central place of social justice within sustainable development, the SDC business plan also specifies how it will go about achieving this strategic outcome. Its plans include:

"The SDC will engage government and other stakeholders to identify where substantial co-benefits and synergies can be achieved between policies that help us to live within environmental limits (particularly climate change) and policies which reduce inequalities in health, poverty, crime and other disadvantage"; and

"We plan to use our close relationship with the Department of Health and stakeholders to engage audiences in further discussion on how a sustainable development approach is vital to tackling health inequalities both for the current and for future generations." (ibid)

16.  This strategic outcome and the associated work plans would have made a substantial contribution towards the goal of socially just sustainable development. It is essential that they are taken forward, with the same priority and resources, through whatever mechanisms and governance arrangements are introduced as a consequence of Defra's withdrawal of funding.


17.  To date, the indications in this regard are not promising. When the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced the decision to withdraw the SDC's funding, she stated that her department would assume "the lead role in driving the sustainability agenda across the whole of government". However, no explanation has been provided as to how Defra intends to perform this function; and given the general context of substantial cuts to departmental budgets, there must be grave concerns about its capacity to devote sufficient resources to this crucial and extensive task.

18.  The FEC believes that Defra should provide a detailed account of how it intends to perform its lead responsibility for sustainable development at the earliest opportunity. In this regard, one further finding from the Food and Fairness Inquiry is pertinent (and the involvement of business leaders is especially significant here). The Inquiry Committee identified a number of areas where government needs to show greater leadership in addressing the causes of food-related social injustice (which, as explained above, is a prerequisite for meeting our sustainable development goals). Examples included action on labour standards, nutrition labelling, and leadership in inter-governmental fora. Defra needs to demonstrate how it intends to meet this demand for leadership in tackling the structural barriers to sustainable development.


19.  The EAC also requests proposals for how, without the assistance of the SDC, the Government can demonstrate that it is "the greenest government ever". Taking this to encompass sustainable development in general, our first suggestion is that the Government should endorse the recommendations put forward by the Food and Fairness Inquiry Committee:

  1. The UK Government should play a leading role in international efforts to reduce food price volatility, by strengthening financial regulation to limit speculation on the price of food - for example, supporting European efforts to set up an agency with a similar mandate to the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission - and by rebuilding public commodity stocks.
  2. The UK Government should hold the European Commission to its commitments that poor countries should be free to protect their fragile food and farming sectors, ensuring that European Partnership Agreements carry no risk of dumping.
  3. All publicly-funded institutions undertaking research to promote food security should explicitly ground their research strategies in the principles set out by the IAASTD report and build on the experience of relevant initiatives such as Fairtrade.
  4. The UK Government should show international leadership in developing resource-based accounting systems that take proper account of natural, human and community capital (in addition to physical and economic capital).
  5. Identifying and supporting fair models of investment should be a key plank of sustainability strategies for food businesses and government.
  6. The UK Government should work with the OFT and consumer groups to develop publicly accountable mechanisms whereby businesses can collaborate to make progress on sustainability that is in the public interest.
  7. Benefit levels and minimum wage rates should be set at levels that allow families to achieve a minimum socially acceptable standard of living, including adequate food and dietary intake, as defined by members of the public.
  8. The UK Government should reinforce measures that improve health and safety throughout our food supply chains, including enforcement and support for training.
  9. Public or community involvement should be a requirement for all public sector or publicly financed programmes and strategies relating to food, including initiatives around innovation.
  10. The UK Government should review the public interest consequences of international trends towards corporate consolidation, and UK and EU options to influence those trends.
  11. Businesses should, in their CSR reports, state their tax payments as share of turnover for each country in which they operate.
  12. As the UK's biggest consumer, Government should ensure that it only buys food that has been produced fairly and sustainably, and can help the people it serves eat a healthy diet.

20.  The forthcoming parliamentary agenda offers two concrete opportunities for the Government to demonstrate its commitment to these proposals for socially just sustainable development. The first would be to support Joan Walley's Public Bodies (Sustainable Food) Bill, thereby showing leadership through sustainable public procurement. The second would be to ensure that the Bill to establish the Groceries Code Adjudicator is brought forward at the earliest opportunity, and that the provisions of the Bill give the Adjudicator sufficient powers and remit to address bad practice in the grocery supply chain. In particular, the FEC believes that the Adjudicator must have the power to proactively identify and investigate bad practice (rather than being limited to responding to complaints), and that it should from its inception have the power to impose financial penalties.

21.  In addition to withdrawing funding from the SDC, Defra has announced its intention to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. The dual role of the AWB in ameliorating the particular vulnerability experienced by agricultural workers, and in promoting training and skills development, has been a significant factor in promoting the sustainability of UK agriculture. At a time when the need to attract a new generation to farming is widely recognised, the decision to abolish the AWB is both regrettable and perverse. The FEC recommends that Defra reverse its decision abolish the AWB; but if Defra does indeed implement this decision, then it is essential that alternative mechanisms are put in place to safeguard agricultural workers' health and safety, and ensure that the necessary priority is attached to training and skills development.


22.  The FEC would be happy to provide more detailed information about the relevance of our Food and Fairness Inquiry, or other aspects of our work, to the EAC's inquiry. Alternatively, the full text of Food Justice - the report of the Food and Fairness Inquiry is available on our website: www.foodethicscouncil.org.

13 October 2010

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