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:
- Social injustice is widespread throughout the
UK (and global) food system; and
- A fairer food system is a prerequisite for meeting
the wider sustainability and public health challenges that confront
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.
INTRODUCTION - THE
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:
- Research and analyse ethical issues.
- Mediate between stakeholders.
- Develop tools for ethical decision-making.
- 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
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.
THE SDC 2010-2011
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."
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";
"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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Identifying and supporting fair models of investment
should be a key plank of sustainability strategies for food businesses
- 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.
- 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.
- The UK Government should reinforce measures that
improve health and safety throughout our food supply chains, including
enforcement and support for training.
- 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.
- The UK Government should review the public interest
consequences of international trends towards corporate consolidation,
and UK and EU options to influence those trends.
- Businesses should, in their CSR reports, state
their tax payments as share of turnover for each country in which
- 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
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