Sustainable food

Written Evidence Submitted by the British Retail Consortium (BRC)

1. Introduction

1.1. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) is the trade association of the retail sector and is the authoritative voice of the industry to policy makers and to the media. The BRC brings together the whole range of retailers across the UK, from independents to large multiples and department stores, selling a wide selection of products through centre of town, out of town, rural and online stores.

1.2. Our membership includes all the major food retailers, who between them account for over 90% of the UK’s grocery sales. We are therefore at the forefront of discussions regarding the future of food policy, the way in which consumers buy and consume food and the way in which goods are sourced, packaged and sold in UK stores.

1.3. The BRC and its members have been engaged in discussions with Government for a number of years on food policy and sustainability. We have regularly met Defra, NFU and FDF to discuss priorities for the whole supply chain and how Government can play its role in developing a coherent food policy. Our members recognise the importance of the issue to ensure food security for their own businesses and meeting consumer demands in a very competitive market.

1.4. Retailers are committed to reducing the environmental impacts of their own operations, as well as the impacts of their customers and suppliers. A number of retail initiatives demonstrate the effectiveness of voluntary action to date, including the BRC climate change initiative, A Better Retailing Climate, the BRC’s On-Pack Recycling Label, voluntary action on carrier bags, and the Courtauld Commitment. Progress recorded in A Better Retailing Climate demonstrates real leadership from the retail sector. Carbon emissions from transport and buildings have been reduced by 18% over the past five years and waste to landfill reduced so that less than a quarter of retail waste is sent to landfill.

1.5. BRC members are engaged in a number of responsible sourcing initiatives to consider social and environmental considerations throughout the supply chain when making purchasing decisions. Through the BRC Responsible Palm Oil Group, the majority of members have voluntarily committed to sourcing RSPO certified palm in their own product by 2015, while members in other working groups in soya and fisheries are participating in a variety of non-governmental and industry initiatives [1] to support best practices in sourcing.

1.6. We have made detailed comments on the issues raised by the Committee below but we wanted to stress the importance of three issues that are crucial in Government’s role in delivering a more sustainable food system. Firstly, these issues will not be solved overnight; changing the production and consumption of food will take time and the Government needs to accept the long term nature of effective food policy. Secondly, food strategy requires consistency from Government over this longer term and should not be diverted from this when issues seem less urgent or less sensitive. Thirdly, food issues cover a number of government departments and agencies and require co-ordination to balance the trade offs and conflicts in food that we discuss below. Government needs a mechanism for ensuring all departments have a shared and agreed approach to food policy.

2. How can the environmental and climate change impacts of the food we choose to eat best be reduced? What are the land-use trade-offs that affect food production and supply and how should these be managed?

2.1. We believe the starting point must be to define environmental and climate change indicators to understand how the impacts of food production and consumption can be minimized. Current scientific thinking is to regard these issues in a more holistic manner, building on Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005 and defining ecosystem services into a set of service metrics and indicators in order to assess the impact on the entire ecosystem. The Welsh Assembly Government, as an example, has started to use the ‘ecological footprint’. However, further investment is needed to fully develop the tools needed to support public and private decision making and processes on the use and development of natural resources for food production.

2.2. Leaving aside the need for more information on indicators, we believe there are two issues that would have the biggest impact in reducing the environmental and climate change impacts of the food we eat. Firstly, an increase in the knowledge of the impacts of food production and how that can be reduced. There are improvements that can be made in production in understanding the impact of issues such as feed regimes, smarter use of water and fertiliser, land and waste management. These rely on continuing research and, as the Foresight report confirmed, application at a farm level. Our members are working closely with their supply chains to improve production and have demonstrated positive reductions in their environmental impact.

2.3. The second factor that will have the most impact is increased consumer awareness of the environmental impact of their diet and changing their behaviour accordingly. Whilst awareness is growing, we are yet to see a major shift in the UK diet and it will take some time for consumers to grasp the quite complex messages about how food is produced and then translate that into choices.

2.4. An increased awareness of diet and the impact of food production would also ensure consumers understand the importance of reducing food waste. It is estimated that between 30% and 50% of food produced is wasted globally. The Foresight report estimates that halving the total could reduce the food required by 2050 by an amount approximately equal to 25% of today’s production [2] . At a UK level, a huge difference could be made by individual consumers and a more coherent approach to waste management by local authorities. WRAP estimates that over 11 million tonnes of food and drink becomes waste in UK households each year and that the average UK family throws away £600 of food per year [3] . Not only would reducing UK food waste radically reduce the environmental impact of food consumed, it would help households save money.

2.5. It is correct to identify the issue of trade offs in land use but it would be wrong to ignore the trade offs and balances that are made in food choices. There is, for example, evidence to show that intensive livestock farming had less of an impact on climate change than free range production but clearly there is a difference in animal welfare standards. Consumers weigh up a number of factors when buying products, alongside price, to ensure they are getting the best value and those trade offs could mean they don’t choose the lowest impact foods.

2.6. There is competition for land used for food production from development, biofuels and non-food crops. In terms of managing those pressures, this could only be achieved by government intervention, such as planning controls, subsidies and taxation.

3. How can the Government help to deliver healthy food sustainably, whilst also delivering affordable food for all?

3.1. The Government could play a role in defining what a healthy, sustainable diet is. There has been discussion on this issue but the work on the topic which was begun by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has now stopped. Defining what is a healthy, sustainable diet is extremely complicated when all the various factors are taken into account and balanced and we believe only the Government could take this forward.

3.2. If there was agreement on what is meant by a healthy, sustainable diet, progress could be made by all stakeholders to deliver it. In the Government’s case this could be through information to consumers to help them make better choices, which would then drive the market and food production to meet that demand. There is a good example of this process in fish where the FSA revised its recommendation on the consumption of fish as part of a balanced diet to take account of sustainability and published advice on its website.

3.3. Healthy food is already affordable in the UK. Even with the recent price rises, fresh fruit and vegetables are cheaper relatively than they were 10 years ago and the Government could do more alongside other stakeholders to dispel the myth that healthy food is more expensive. Also the Government can and does play a part in helping consumers make healthier choices. It provides vouchers under the Healthy Start scheme for low income families to buy milk, fruit and vegetables. It has also piloted partnership work with convenience stores to sell more fruit and vegetables, although it is yet to roll this out nationally. If there was agreement on what is healthy and sustainable it could incorporate that into these schemes.

3.4. It is also important for the Government to be joined up when driving sustainable food policy. There are many different government departments that can affect food policy and this can lead to inconsistent messaging going to both consumers and industry. We believe that this is unhelpful and is avoidable, if the Government plans its messaging with a long term, strategic and clear focus.

3.5. An example of this potential for conflict is in the desire for the food industry to support farmers in developing countries through, for example, support for Fairtrade produce, whilst also seeking to promote UK-sourced food and seasonal fruit and vegetables.

3.6. This need for joined up government also extends to the relationship between the UK Government and the devolved administrations. The UK stands a far better chance of delivering healthy and sustainable food when it works together, as this pools resources and experience, not to mention increases efficiencies for businesses seeking to roll initiatives out nationally. Arguably much of this work should be advanced at a European or WTO level, bearing in mind these challenges are not simply felt in the UK but are part of the increasingly globalised nature of food production and consumption.

3.7. The BRC is particularly disappointed that the work that went in to Food 2030 has not been progressed. This was a comprehensive piece of work that had significant buy in from the many different parts of the food industry, as well as significant support from NGOs and addressed a number of the challenges in delivering healthy and sustainable food. We believe that Food 2030 set a direction of travel that should sit above the inevitable short term focus of politics, that could have been pursued under the new administration, albeit with some tweaks and alterations to reflect political priorities. Progress from this point on requires firm action, not further review, and we would be disappointed to see further investigative work being undertaken, when this has already taken place.

4. How can consumers be helped to make more sustainable choices about food?

4.1. The start has to be an improved awareness and knowledge amongst consumers to enable them to make the appropriate choices. Sustainability, however, is a complex issue and whilst we have seen progress in single issues such as palm oil and fish, consumer awareness and, particularly, an ability to balance all the factors in sustainability, is low.

4.2. Consumers take their messages from a variety of sources, the media, friends and family, retailers and Government but these are primarily around single issues. The FSA work to provide more comprehensive guidance on sustainability was an interesting development but we believe it is a missed opportunity that this has not continued.

4.3. Retailers recognise they also have a role in helping consumers make better choices. Firstly, as we explained earlier, they are improving the production of all their supply chains. This means consumers will be making more sustainable choices without necessarily noticing any difference. Secondly, they have increased their range of products to offer more choice of sustainable products. Finally they are using information, on their websites, in store and on labels to help consumers make more sustainable choices. Whilst labelling, as an example, can be an effective tool, this is only if the consumer has the awareness and intention to act on it.

4.4. Labelling of sustainability on pack is a complicated issue. The EU Ecoflower attempts to provide consumers with an overarching stamp of approval, but does not provide sufficient detail to interested consumers regarding the specific impacts of individual products. In contrast, some labels such as FSC, MSC, Fairtrade or the Carbon Trust’s carbon footprint label focus only on one issue. Our own experience in developing the On Pack Recycling Label is that the issues are often too complex to communicate effectively on pack, but that over simplification risks providing misinformation.

4.5. The choice of food is only part of the role that consumers can play towards improving sustainability. Cutting food waste throughout the chain would make a significant impact on its sustainability. Although some progress has been made, particularly as a result of the Love Food Hate Waste Campaign, there is more that could be done to educate consumers on food waste, encouraging them to waste less and where they do ensure it is reused. We believe further support for the work of WRAP, which is carrying out research on the influences on food waste and providing practical guidance to consumers, will be important to further improvements in performance.

4.6. Retailers recognise their role in helping consumers to make better choices. They can promote alternative, more sustainable products, possibly working with certification bodies such as MSC and FSC. They also provide information to help customers identify those alternatives through information on their website and in their in-store magazines. More generically they are promoting seasonality and local sourcing, which are often more sustainable choices.

5. Which aspects of the food production and supply chain are presenting the biggest problems for the sustainability of the food industry?

5.1. Ecosystem resilience is essential to sustaining production capacity in the long term as it provides ecosystem goods and services such as top soil and fresh water. However, pressures arising from demand in resources from increasing global population, changes in diet and growth of a middle class in the BRIC [4] countries has put undue stress on many systems. The pressure on these ecosystems to produce more to meet rising demand is exacerbated by more erratic weather conditions, such as floods or drought caused by climate change. [5]

5.2. In the short term, the decrease in productive assets like water, energy, and soil will present the most immediate problems for sustainability in food production. Retailers are already working with their supply chains to improve efficiency, animal health and welfare whilst reducing their impact on the environment. However, with thousands of suppliers in their supply chain, assistance is needed to transfer and exchange best practices and new technologies among farmers and suppliers.

6. How might the changing powers of local authorities and the localism agenda hinder, or be used to encourage, more sustainable promotion and supply of food?

6.1. The BRC believes that to achieve responsible and effective localism, the Government needs to adopt a framework which clearly defines the parameters within which local decision-makers are able to act. Many key environmental challenges, including food sustainability, will be addressed most effectively in the presence of a national strategic policy framework. We agree that local problems can be effectively tackled through locally determined solutions, but this approach should not be taken if it risks adding cost and bureaucratic complexity without genuine additional local benefits. Indeed, for nationally organised businesses operating in highly competitive markets, added cost and complexity could act to limit growth.

6.2. It will not always be appropriate for retailers to promote different food choices in different local areas. Indeed, more sustainable food groups will generally be more sustainable nationally – the impact of transport is often a small proportion of the overall impact of food products.

6.3. It is important for retailers that the devolved governments adopt consistent approaches. Retailers have far greater ability to deliver improvements effectively if they are provided with consistent operating environments. Requiring different approaches in different parts of the UK has significant potential to hinder the implementation of effective solutions.

6.4. Retailers have entered numerous partnerships with local authorities, particularly on the waste agenda. Retailers will continue to engage at a local level where appropriate. However, adopting national policies and actions can also be an extremely effective mechanism. Adopting local activities with respect to sustainable food supply risks introducing different messages locally and therefore overcomplicating an issue that is possibly best addressed at a national level.

7. How could Government procurement practices be improved to promote better practice across the food sector?

7.1. We believe it is important the UK Government, as well as the devolved administrations, show leadership in the way they procure food, ensuring that they ask the food sector to do nothing they aren’t prepared to do themselves. This means adopting the same approach to sourcing food that responsible food companies take. This requires governments not to simply take the cheapest option but the best option in the long term.

7.2. We also believe governments should supply more information to those who are eating the food procured by them to help them make better choices and, where appropriate, challenge their suppliers to provide more sustainable food. For example, we are surprised that the country of origin labelling principles to give consumers clear information on the provenance of their food has not been adopted in Government canteens and restaurants.

25 March 2011

[1] WWF Seafood Alliance (member through EuroCommerce ; M&S, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose); RTRS (M&S, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, others are signing up)

[2] The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability.


[4] Brazil , Russia , India and China

[5] Resilience and Sustainable Development: A Report for the Swedish Environmental Advisory Council.