Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by the Sustainable Development Commission

Background and Summary

From April 2000 until March 31st 2011 the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) was the Government’s independent adviser on sustainable development, reporting to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. Through advocacy, advice and appraisal, we helped put sustainable development at the heart of Government policy.

Food is at the heart of the sustainability challenges. The transition from the post-war era of rationing to today’s previously unimaginable range of choice is remarkable. More people have been fed, food has become progressively cheaper, making available an unprecedented range of foods, across the seasons. Yet by no stretch of the imagination could our complex web of food supply, consumption patterns and impact be currently described as sustainable.

Attempting to articulate what a sustainable food system is – one that addresses the multidimensional challenges of health, fairness, environment and economy – and what is required for its delivery, has been a persistent theme of policy deliberations and the work of the Sustainable Development Commission over the last decade. A full list of publications relevant to sustainable food is given in Appendix 1. Our lead Commissioner in this field is Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, City University.

Our latest report, Looking back, looking forward: Sustainability and UK food policy 2000-2011 [1] reviews progress towards sustainable food policy in the UK from 2000 to 2011 – the period that reflects the lifetime of the SDC. It identifies specific challenges for food and sustainability and highlights priorities for action going forward. Its purpose is to advise policy makers in the UK Governments, as well as those in business, academia and civil society, who continue to pursue this important goal. It draws on previous work by the SDC in this area and is also informed by the findings of a survey of 145 experts within Government, business, academia and civil society during November and December 2010. Our submission draws on the evidence and findings of this work. The full evidence can be found in the report itself.

Key Points:

· The body and strength of evidence on the need to change the UK food system to face the immense challenges ahead grows rather than diminishes. Rising food inflation is again reminding Governments of the need to wean food production away from its dependency on oil. The need to waste less and feed growing populations healthily while reversing biodiversity, climate change and environment damage, are well documented. Yet policy development within Government remains inadequate to meet these challenges.

· While there has been some progress towards sustainable food systems in the UK, particularly in awareness of the issues we face and some aspects of delivery, not enough has occurred to dispel SDC’s concern about failures to achieve systemic change. The core message of our submission is the need for urgency to speed up the pace and scale of change and to encourage present and future Governments to help transform UK food systems towards truly sustainable food.

· Food 2030 was the first expression of an integrated sustainable food policy with wide stakeholder buy-in. The progress achieved in developing this vision is now being undermined by the Coalition Government’s lack of commitment towards its goals. We urge the Government to re-energise the process of integrated policy thinking and to produce a Sustainable Food Delivery Plan by September 2011. This will require dialogue with the commercial, civil society and scientific worlds and cross-government working with relevant departments including Department of Health (DH), Food Standards Agency (FSA), Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC), Her Majesty’s Treasury (HMT), Cabinet Office (CO) and Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG).

Specific themes of the Inquiry

1. 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?

1.1 The food system is a complex web of food supply and consumption. Reducing the negative environmental (and social) impacts of this system requires an integrated approach, and the engagement of all sectors from production through to consumption, working in partnership with Governments. There is now good evidence of negative environmental and climate change impacts of our food system, from evidence of greenhouse gas hotspots (e.g. meat and dairy production/consumption; food waste, transport) to degradation of land, forestry, fisheries and water. The multiple threats identified by science must be turned into a more resilient, sustainable food system.

1.2 We need to see the whole of the food chain – primary production, processing, distribution, retail and catering – fully engaged and working towards meeting high sustainability criteria. Such clarity of purpose is currently lacking. Action to reduce negative impacts will require political will and leadership to accept the evidence and act upon it. There is a clear leadership role for government here. Climate change (like obesity) is a major market failure, hence policies that ‘leave it to the market’ will fail to tackle the challenges adequately. In our report, Looking Back, Looking Forward we outline in more detail what government leadership would look like in practice. This includes developing a Delivery Plan to action the sustainability goals envisaged within Food2030.

1.3 In respect of land-use trade-offs, Foresight rightly in our view identified the need to produce more food sustainably – and coined a new phrase – ‘sustainable intensification’. The challenge, now, is understanding what this term means in practice, and particularly for the UK in the context of this Inquiry. The long term viability of UK agriculture and horticulture and UK Food security depend up on the UK producing food sustainably, mitigating greenhouse gases, protecting the environment and enhancing the landscape as a public good. A significant challenge will be achieving an acceptable balance between producing, and where appropriate, importing sustainable food for a growing population, and meeting the increasing calls for agricultural policy/subsidies to incentivise and reward environmental stewardship. In order to achieve this, a reconnection of environmental services and food-producing land is overdue We recommend that CAP reform should evolve towards a new Common Sustainable Food Policy, centred on the EU becoming a low impact, healthy and just food market.

1.4 The extent to which food production must respect environmental limits needs to be carefully considered. Soya, for example is not EU-sourced, but is common as an animal food and feed ingredient. There has been particular sensitivity about soya planting on land which was formerly tropical forest.

1.5 The capacity of land and soils to produce food is equally important. Soil is the foundation on which food production depends. It also holds carbon and has the potential to sequester more. Its importance in retaining water cannot be underestimated. All these are under extra threat due to climate change. The dependence of intensive agriculture on nitrogen-based fertilisers whose manufacture involves heavy use of finite and costly fo ssil fuels is also problematic. SDC welcomed the previous Government’s 2009 Soil Strategy [2] which sought to ensure England’s soils were maintained in a fit state to grow food sustainably and more abundantly. The loss of food growing land - to building, roads, ‘development’ - cannot be ignored. Soil is the most precious resource and everywhere needs to be kept in good condition to feed people while promoting eco-systems support.

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

2.1 In 2007 the FSA’s Low Income Diet & Nutrition Survey showed that general nutrition levels in the UK are poor, with people on low incomes even worse. The 2010 Marmot Review, Fair Society, Healthy Lives [3] to which SDC contributed, illustrated the continuing divide. The political challenge is to deliver a more equitable UK society for all. Government policies have tended to address the symptoms rather than the causes of such inequalities. For example, Department for Health’s Healthy Start programme [4] provides support, including vouchers towards the cost of milk, fruit and vegetables for pregnant women and children on very low incomes. Government needs to recommit to dramatically reduce the inequalities in our society which determine health divisions.

2.2 With food price rises currently present, and likely to continue long-term, the impact of price pressures on low income consumers is likely to be expressed in the further widening of health disparities. SDC recommends that UK Government needs to be explicit about how it is addressing food and health inequalities. New fiscal policies are required to improve affordability of healthy and sustainable food choices. The cost of ensuring a nutritious and sustainable diet should be reflected in setting minimum wage and benefit levels. We also recommend that Government needs to draw on the experience of and community initiatives to address food and low income issues and to support and enable the scaling up of successful initiatives.

2.3 Public sector food procurement is one route to address the challenge of delivering healthy, sustainable food for all, by ensuring healthy, sustainable food in schools, hospitals, social care, prisons, public sector workplace canteens etc. SDC recommends mandatory health and sustainability standards for all publicly procured food.

2.4 The emphasis on ‘cheap’ food, heightened by price wars between retailers has had the effect of squeezing ‘costs’ out of the food chain, often to the detriment of suppliers and workers. SDC is calling for Defra and the Office for National Statistics to regularly publish a breakdown of where in the food chain consumers’ ‘Food Pound’ goes to ensure greater transparency as a means towards fairer distribution within food chains.

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

3.1 Firstly it is important to ‘define’ sustainable diets. As SDC’s work to help define a sustainable diet (Setting the Table, 2009) showed, there are synergies between the environmental and health benefits of a sustainable diet. This work to advise Government on priority elements of sustainable diets identified reducing the consumption of meat, diary, fatty and sugary foods, and reducing food waste as the changes likely to have the most significant impact on making diets more sustainable. Nevertheless, more detailed work to identify how to integrate advice to consumers in a more coherent way is long overdue. SDC is recommending the need for UK bodies to define sustainable diets and to consider how policy can enable people to consume accordingly. We recommend this should be a new action led by Defra and the Department of Health, taking advice from specialist bodies.

3.2 Consumers are increasingly encouraged to be conscious of where their food comes from and how it is produced. Yet there remains a value-action gap between our beliefs or values and our actions, with ‘green’ consumers remaining a minority. As we concluded in 2006, in the report of the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable [5] , the Government cannot simply hope to persuade the whole of the population to act in the way that ‘green ‘consumers do when many sustainable behaviours are more difficult, expensive or outside the norm. Consumers, therefore, need to be better ‘enabled’ towards sustainable food consumption.

3.3 Understanding the ways in which people can best be enabled towards sustainable consumption needs to be a priority. SDC’s research [6] published in 201 suggests that enabling sustainable food production and consumption will also require more than a ‘nudge’ to consumers and light touch civil society-led change, as conceived in some interpretations of Big Society thinking. It will require comprehensive and co-ordinated multi-sector movement and engagement, with a managed and constructive process of system change. We warn that Government should be wary of putting too much reliance on only one lever of behaviour change when the full range is far wider, from ‘soft’ measures such as information, labelling and nudge to ‘hard’ ones such as fiscal, regulatory and pricing.

3.4 Food labelling is often seen as the means to help consumers shop more sustainably. While labelling can assist the committed ‘green’ or health-conscious shopper, it is less successful as a general motivator of behaviour change. Therefore policy should not rely solely on labelling to reshape consumer demand and aspirations.

3.5 Within this approach, food education in schools should also be a priority. SDC would like to see Sustainability Food Education becoming a theme around which exciting education could develop. We note the inspiring role that partnerships can have between NGOs and schools, for example, the Lottery-funded Food for Life Partnership [7] . We recommend schools be supported to put further emphasis on practical food experience, including cooking skills and food growing, and to help educate future food citizenship skills including understanding of how marketing affects food choices.

3.6 Food retailers, manufacturers and caterers also have a key role to play through more sustainable and ethical sources and choice editing. Examples include sourcing of sustainable fish, use of sustainable palm oil in products, free range eggs, poultry and meat, organic sourcing and waste and packaging reductions. In respect of the latter, the Courtauld Commitment has been an important driver, setting challenging and improving goals for businesses, monitored and reported on by WRAP (the Waste Resources Action Programme) [8] . This ‘responsibility deal’ has driven significant reductions in packed waste and reducing food waste over a number of years. By contrast, Andrew Lansley’s recent ‘responsibility deals’ with business to tackle obesity are weak, lacking challenging targets and adequate plans for monitoring and reporting on progress.

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

4.1 ‘Meat and dairy’ account for 24% of the environmental impact of Europeans’ consumption patterns [9] as they are major contributors to greenhouse gas and water footprints. We recognise the issue is complex but note that space for public dialogue is opening up. For example, work recently undertaken by the Food Ethics Council and WWF-UK demonstrates that there is consensus that in general it is appropriate for the UK Government to seek to reduce GHG emissions relating to what we consume [10] .

4.2 Reducing food waste remains a priority for action. SDC is recommending Defra’s forthcoming waste strategy include a commitment to zero food waste to landfill by 2015.

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

5.1 Food has proved successful as a means to engage people locally around sustainability issues, for example through the Transition Town movement and other local initiatives, such as the development of community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, community growing schemes and local food partnerships.

5.2 We see particular opportunities at local level to harness the enthusiasm of community-led initiatives with local authorities, public health bodies, schools, social enterprises and business through local food partnerships to deliver healthier, sustainable communities. We recommend that Government, through Defra, CLG and DH should encourage new local food partnerships to harness local bodies into the change process towards the goal of creating more sustainable UK food systems by 2030.

5.3 However there are considerable uncertainties around many of the proposed changes at local level, including to public health delivery. Situating local directors of public health within local authorities will potentially help to integrate better the delivery of public health within a broader sustainability framework, but this remains uncertain. Uncertainties about whether adequate public health funding will be available for tackling obesity and to support sustainability initiatives, remains a challenge, as does uncertainties over GP commissioning.

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

6.1 It has long been recognised that public sector food procurement can promote good practice on healthy, sustainable food provision, yet in reality this has failed to live up to its promises to deliver. The existing, though limited, good practice in this area has not had the support and backing of government. SDC was disappointed when the Coalition Government in 2010 dropped the Healthier Food Mark work intended to establish healthy sustainable food via public sector food procurement. The coalition’s commitment to producing Buying Standards for Food for the government estate is much smaller in scale and it is unclear how ambitious these standards will be.

6.2 The SDC would like to see public sector food procurement programmes operating to an agreed set of standards, which ‘choice edit’ out less healthy and unsustainable foods from public contracts, including schools, hospitals, social care and prisons and also through encouraging the private sector through its workplace provision of food. We recommend mandatory health and sustainability standards for all public procured food. In doing so, we recommend Government draw on pioneering work such as the Food for Life scheme to create a common public set of standards. We also recommend the creation of a sustainable procurement delivery team and ‘Tsar’ to drive progress. Food procurement within the public sector offers a significant opportunity to use public money to drive sustainability within supply chains and for consumers.

Appendix 1: SDC publications contributing to Government policy development on sustainability and food    


(Available to download at


Looking back, Looking forward: Sustainability and UK food policy 2000 – 2011

Making Sustainable Lives Easier: A Priority for Governments, Business and Society.


Sustainable development: The key to tackling health inequalities (February 2010)

Becoming the ‘Greenest Government Ever’: achieving sustainability in operations and procurement (July 2010) .


Setting the Table – Advice to Government on priority elements of a sustainable diet (December 2009)

Low Carbon Wales – Regional Priorities for Action (November 2009)

Scottish Third Assessment – Sustainable Development Progress by the Scottish Government (November 2009)

Food Security and Sustainability: the perfect fit. SDC Position Paper (July 2009)

SDiG Report 2008 – Challenges to Government (May 2009)

Prosperity without Growth – The transition to a sustainable economy (30 March 2009).


NHS England Carbon Footprinting report (M ay 2008)

Health, Place and Nature (2008)

Sustainable Development in Government 2007 (March 2008)

Green, healthy and fair – A review of the government’s role in supporting sustainable supermarket food (Feb 2008).


$100 a barrel of oil: impacts on the sustainability of food supply in the UK (November 2007)   

Review of the environmental dimension of children and young people's well-being (March 2007)

Sustainable Development in Government 2006 (March 2007).


Climate Change - the UK Programme 2006 (July 2006)

I will if you will - Towards sustainable consumption (May 2006)

Sustainable Development in Government 2006 (SDiG) (March 2006)

The Good Corporate Citizen website (February 2006).


SDiG 05 – Leading by example (December 2005)

Double Dividend? Promoting good nutrition and sustainable consumption through healthy school meals (December 2005)

The Role of Food Retail: A Sustainable Consumption Roundtable response to the draft Food Industry Sustainability Strategy (July 2005)

Sustainable Implications of the Little Red Tractor scheme (January 2005).


Securing good health for the whol e population ( Wanless Review): S ubmission from the SDC (November 2003)

Healthy futures #1 - sustainable development opportunities for the NHS (October 2003)

Policies for sustainable consumption (SDC report - September 2003) 

Sustainability of sugar supply chains (SDC report - April 2003)

UK Climate Change Programme: a policy audit (SDC report - February 2003)


Putting sustainable development at the centre in Northern Ireland (October, 2002).

Sustainable food procurement in the NHS (May 2002).


Sustainability appraisal of policies for farming and food (December 2001)

A vision for sustainable agriculture (October 2001)

Sustainable development in Europe (September 2001).

28 March 2011


[2] Defra (2009) Safeguarding our Soils – A Strategy for England .

[3] Marmot Review. Fair Society, Healthy Lives: Strategic Review of Health Inequalities in England Post 2010. London: Marmot Review; 2010.


[5] Sustainable Development Commission/National Consumer Council (2006) I will if you will - Towards sustainable consumption .

[6] Sustainable Development Commission (2011) Making Sustainable Lives Easier: A Priority for Governments, Business and Society .



[9] Tukker , A., S. Bausch-Goldbohm, et al. (2009). Environmental Impacts of Diet Changes in the EU. Seville, European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for Prospective Technological Studies.

[10] MacMillan, T. and Durrant, R., (2009) Livestock consumption and climate change: A framework for dialogue,