Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by the Food Ethics Council



1. Resolving the tensions between social, economic and environmental objectives within the food sector requires changes in wider social and economic policy, including in trade, competition, employment conditions and benefit levels. P eople working in food and farming must find ways of exerting leverage on these wider policy issues, for example by collaborating with other sectors.

2. Priorities for government action include:

· Reducing inequalities in diet-related health by setting benefit levels and minimum wage rates at levels which allow families to achieve a minimum socially acceptable standard of living .

· W ork ing with the Office Fair Tradin g to promote publicly accountable mechanisms whereby businesses can collaborate on sustainability initiatives .

· D eveloping resource-based accounting systems that take proper account of natural, human and community capital.

· Only buying food that has been produced f airly and sustainably, and helping the people catered for by the public sector to eat a healthy diet.

· Reforming the Research Councils to ensure that the intended beneficiaries of publicly-funded science are better represented in decision-making about research priorities relating to food security and sustainability.

3. Improving food labelling has only a limited part in to play in helping consumers to make more sustainable choices, and government should commit to introducing fiscal measures and regulation where appropriate. Individualistic and incentive-based approaches to ‘nudging’ consumer behaviour could erode government’s permission from the public to promote sustainable and healthy diets.

4. Our work has found that government has a mandate from industry, as well as from public interest groups, to take a clear lead in finding ways to promote sustainable consumption, as long as interventions are fair and practical.



5. 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.

6. 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. The members are listed at the end of this document.

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?


7. Much of the effort by academics and environmental groups to address the environmental impact of food has focused on environmental footprinting and modelling . This has been crucial in making the case that systemic changes are necessary and plausible. E nvironmental accounting of this kind suggests that, in addition to the many welcome improvements in resource efficiency that are already being pursued across the food and farming industries (e.g. sector roadmaps and the FDF’s environmental ambition) , qualitative changes in food production and consumption will be necessary – we need to eat differently. Inasmuch as changing consumption behaviour reduces the overall resource demands of our food system , it can relieve the pressure on consumers, policy-makers and businesses to make difficult trade-offs, for example between animal welfare and resource efficiency, or among competing land uses . [1]

8. While changing consumption behaviour could reduce the pressure to compromise on some issues, it gives rise to additional trade-offs in other areas. In particular, it is seen to pose risks to farmers’ livelihoods. However, far less attention has been given to how we might eat differently in practice without serious unintended consequences. Modelling what a ‘sustainable diet’ could look like provides no guarantee that advising consumers to follow it would in practice reconfigure complex behaviour, markets and supply chains along more sustainable lines. Within the food and farming industries, anecdotal experience suggests that well-meaning consumer campaigns intended to change diets on environmental or animal welfare grounds have in some cases caused short-term spikes or troughs in demand, resulting in emergency imports or increased food waste , rather than improved performance or investment in sustainable practices. While food producers may see a short-term vested interest in doing business as usual , just more efficiently, their concern about unintended consequences is pertinent also to the public interest.

9. The result has been a stalemate between environmental advocates arguing on the basis of environmental accounting that systemic change is necessary, and producers rebutting that proposed mitigation measures won’t work. The circularity and sensitivity of this debate – particularly when it comes to the consumption of livestock products and climate change – has made government wary of helping to steer a way through the comple x issues involved . This is evident in successive government reports – most recently from Foresight [2] – that recognise the importance of sustainable meat and dairy consumption only to shy away from taking action or responsibility to bring about change .

10. Through work with WWF-UK and farmers’ groups on the consumption of livestock products and climate change, we have demonstrated that a process of dialogue can break this stalemate. Instead of reiterating the arguments in principle that changes in consumption are necessary, we focused on the practical interventions that government or others could take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by influencing what people eat. [3] The process involved identifying an initial list of 27 plausible interventions, ranging from behaviour change campaigns to fiscal measures that c ould influence consumption by affect ing the relative prices of meat, dairy and other foods, and in each case specified the potential barriers and unintended consequences for farmers livelihoods, the economy, the environment and animal welfare. Working through this in deliberative dialogue allowed the identification of ‘no or low regret’ interventions, and highlight ed cross-cutting actions that would clarify, pre-empt or add ress the most serious barriers. This approach has been welcomed by key producer organisations . [4]

11. Trade policy emerges from this work as central to promoting sustainable consumption and production in the food sector because much hinges on the UK’s position in international markets. A major concern for UK businesses is that environmental protection and animal welfare measures in the UK will simply ‘off-shore’ economi c activity and the problems that go with it.

12. The main message from the work of the FEC and WWF-UK on sustainable meat and dairy consumption i s that government does have a mandate from the industry, as well as from public interest groups , to take a lead in promoting sustainable diets , as long as its approach is practical and fair. Our workshops and meetings with the industry have detected an emerging and cautious acceptance among producer organisations that diets which lower greenhouse gas emissions are not automatically a threat to farmers’ profitability .

13. Informed by this work, we urge government to:

· Bring farmers, environmental advocates, health groups and animal welfare organisations to the table in an ongoing dialogue to identify and implement practical ways of reducing our consumption footprint that support rural livelihoods and respect people’s liberty, building on the momentum created by the FEC/WWF-UK work and by a recent roundtable convened by Defra and Friends of the Earth. To be a credible process, government must demonstrate it is prepared to act as well as to convene.

· Explore with retailers, farmers and NGOs the strengths and limitations of supermarket producer groups as mechanisms for promoting more sustainable diets. Producer groups have been mooted as offering potential to support farm gate prices and ensure investment in sustainable production in a marketplace where consumers were encouraged to eat less but higher quality meat.

· Clarify what conditions would need to be in place for import substitution to offer a socially and environmentally acceptable way of reconciling reduced UK consumption of animal products with a thriving livestock sector.

· Focus research on tackling any specific knowledge gaps that frustrate practical efforts to reduce GHGs in specific supply chains , rather than commissioning further studies that discuss whether action is necessary.

· Show strong leadership and moral accountability in ensuring that that the parameters within which environmental efficiency is pursued respect public expectations that food is produced fairly, sustainably and without cruelty to animals. There is no good in doing the wrong thing more efficiently .

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


14. This question was a focus for the Food & Fairness Inquiry, a year-long investigation into social justice in food and farming undertaken by a committee of respected and influential figures from across the food sector, as well as experts in food poverty, sustainability and international development. The members included Fairtrade Foundation CEO Harriet Lamb, Andrew Opie from the British Retail Consortium, Melanie Leech, Director General of the Food and Drink Federation, Terry Jones from the NFU, Paul Whitehouse, Chair of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, Helen Browning, now Director of the Soil Association, and Jeanette Longfield, who runs the campaign group Sustain.

15. As well as making specific recommendations for action, the Food & Fairness Inquiry report, Food Justice, [1] provides wider advice on how government can best approach the challenge of squaring health, food access and sustainability. The four most pertinent findings can be summed up as follows.

16. First, ‘cheap food’ is no longer a legitimate social policy objective, since lower prices have come at massive environmental and social cost . There is a shared responsibility for putting this era behind us. Citizens will need to accept food prices that reflect the full costs of production, including social and environmental costs. Frameworks for business must be such that business profitability is not dependent upon promoting and selling cheap food. And governments must ensure that income support and minimum wage levels are sufficient to pay for healthy food at prices that reflect the full environmental and social costs of production.

17. Second, resolving the tensions between social, economic and environmental objectives within the food sector requires changes in wider social and economic policy , for example on employment, benefit levels, competition and finance. The fact that many of the issues we face around food are shared with other sectors is a challenge which has largely been put to one side in other major reviews of food policy – notably the Cabinet Office Food Matters report, with which our staff and members were also involved – in order to focus only on problems and levers of change seen as unique to the food sector. By contrast, the Food & Fairness Inquiry found that people working in the food sector have a responsibility to press for wide-reaching change, and to try and influence relevant areas of policy that lie outside the food sector . Indeed, the committee found, if we fail to do so we stand little prospect of provi ding healthy food sustainably and affordably.

18. Third, the market has to work differently . A recurrent theme throughout the Inquiry was that the market does not currently enable consumers to act in accordance with their values – a situation that could be described as ‘ethical market failure’. Part of the reason is that price is a very poor proxy of the impact of food on sustainable development , so we need to develop forms of resource-based accounting to enable markets to provide the benefits of efficiency (which is what they are good at) in relation to environmental and social factors.

19. Fourth, government has a stronger mandate to intervene than is generally reflected in policy . Responsible business leaders are increasingly vocal in calling for more effective regulation in order to secure a ‘more level playing field’ – to prevent less scrupulous businesses from under-cutting their more sustainable counterparts. A recent report for the Food and Drink Federation found that "there appears to be a strong desire from industry for government leadership through coherent and appropriate regulation and legislation". [2]

20. In line with these findings, we recommend that government :

21. R ecognise that achieving adequ ate food and dietary intake of the least well off requires setting benefit levels and minimum wage rates at levels which allow families to achieve a minimum socially acceptable standard of living . The committee found complex but significant evidence that poor people are less likely to be healthy, that this is partly down to their less healthy diets, and that this is partly due to the relative costs of healthy and unhealthy food. As well as being harmful to those people, t his has significant costs to society . [3] Furthermore, improving resource-based accounting systems may see the prices of food rise over and above the increases being driven supply side factors .

22. Seeks to ensure that the structure of the market supports sustainability initiatives . The fact that retailers capture a disproporti onate share of the value chain compromises the effectiveness further up the supply chain to ensure the environmental and soc ial costs of production are met; it is very difficult for producers to invest in sustainability measures that have a long pay-back period, or to envisage a lower-volume, higher-value market, when farm gate prices are below the cost of production. The Food Justice report also recommended that government should work with the Office Fair Tradin g and consumer groups to promote publicly accountable mechanisms whereby businesses can collaborate to make progress on sustainability initiatives we explore this more fully in a recent discussion paper. [4]

23. Shows 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). We need to value the environment more than we currently do, for its own sake and to protect vulnerable people. Pricing in the environmental costs of production will be an important part of the solution, but must be supplemented by other policy approaches, including regulation, taxation and incentives. The forthcoming Natural Environment White Paper is expected to contribute to this.

24. Only buys food that has been produced fairly and sustainably, and helps the pe ople it serves to eat a healthy diet . We echo the findings of many other reviews that public food procurement is the most crucial point at which government can exert direct leverage within the food sector, and is a test of its commitment to health and sustainability.

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


25. Our comments above highlight trade, competition, employment conditions and social welfare as priorities for policy change to underpin sustainable food systems. In previous work we have shown that planning regulations and science policy also present important opportunities to improve sustainability in the food industry. [1] These areas lie outside the food sector, so a big challenge for people working within the food sector is to find ways of exerting leverage on these wider policy issues, for example by collaborating with businesses, NGOs and public servants working in other sectors that face similar problems . Efforts that duck this challenge, and seek to promote sustainable food systems through food and farming policy alone, can make only very limited progress.

26. We will shortly be in a position to report the biggest challenges and opportunities as seen by civil society organisations working on food and farming. A consortium of charitable foundations, co-ordinated by the Environmental Funders Network, commissioned the Food Ethics Council to undertake a survey of public interest work on food and farming. Over 300 groups responded, ranging from small community projects to some of the largest charities in the country. A report of the findings will be published in June.

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


27. The Food and Fairness Inquiry found that consumer demand is a major influence on retailers, who have developed a range of methods to take account of, and influence, that demand. C onsumers therefore have a strong collective influence on retailers, but that influence is in aggregate. As individuals, they are in a weak strategic position to shape the retail environment. They may be able to choose where to shop (depending on where they live) but, once they are through the door, their options are heavily constrained by the retailer’s decisions on stocking, sourcing, price and promotion. Even here, the degree of choice that consumers are left with is open to question – supermarkets provide a huge range of discrete items available for purchase, but whether this amounts to an opportunity to make significant discriminations is less clear. This leaves many consumers feeling "powerless, unable to impact the big picture, locked into high levels of harmful consumption". [1]

28. We have recently explored two aspects of this issue in particular depth: the prospects for improving environmental labelling on food products; and the current fashion in government for ‘nudging’ the public towards greener and healthier lives.

29. In a report for Defra, jointly authored with the University of Hertfordshire and the Policy Studies Institute, we explored the strengths and weaknesses of the science behind environmental labelling, reviewing 70 existing labelling schemes in the UK and internationally, and considering the practicalities of labelling for consumers and businesses. [2] In particular, we explored the pros and cons of developing ‘omni-labels’ that cover multiple environmental impact areas. We found that:

· Most existing environmental labels tell consumers how their food was produced, but they do not measure the direct environmental footprint of individual products. These ‘practice-based’ labels play a valuable role in engaging shoppers with environmental issues , and are likely to remain more cost effective than ‘outcome-based’ omni-labels.

· At present, the science is not robust enough to develop a broad omni-label that accurately tells consumers the environmental footprint of specific food products.

· Measuring environmental impact is crucial to helping businesses become greener, but our report for Defra outlines big technical challenges . We echo the recommendations on animal welfare labelling of the Farm Animal Welfare Forum that the best prospects for improving environmental labelling in the short-term lies in approaches that are "production system based with outcome safeguards". [3]

· However , labelling is more effective at improving best practice than eliminating worst practice , so efforts to reduce the environmental impact of food should not focus primarily on labelling.

30. In relation to labelling, we recommend that government :

· Promotes a scientific approach and common standards in sustainable development impact assessment.

· Explicitly recognises limited potential of labelling to meet consumers’ reasonable expectations that their food has been produced sustainably, fairly and with respect for animal welfare, committing to fiscal measures and regulation where necessary.

31. On the broader question of how far government can and should ‘nudge’ consumers’ eating habits, experts writing in the latest edition of Food Ethics magazine recognised that behavioural economics and psychology have a crucial role in helping change people’s behaviour, but they urged a better balance between nudges and government action. [4] Informed by their analysis, we conclude that :

· Independent scrutiny of policies relying on ‘nudges’ is crucial . There must be ongoing and rigorous evaluation of nudge policies, including the DoH’s Responsibility Deals, which will have implications for sustainability as well as for health.

· Individualistic and incentive-based nudges could erode government’s mandate from the public to change their behaviour. Instilling a sense of collective, rather than individual responsibility can be more effective: people think ‘I will if you will’ not ‘I will if you (government) don’t’ . [5]

32. In a separate report for Making Local Food Work, we offer a community-based perspective on behaviour change in the food sector, outlining how communities can ‘nudge themselves’ to more sustainable diets. [6]

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


33. While the Food & Fairness Inquiry explored the challenges of improving public sector catering, that is not the only aspect of government procurement that has profound implications for the food sector. Another is research procurement, both in the strict sense of research commissioned by government departments, and the broader sense of science funding through the Research Councils.

34. Our successive reports on research and innovation in agriculture have identified a serious and as yet unanswered need for improvements in public sector governance. [1] Crucially, the intended end beneficiaries of research need to be better represented in decision-making about research priorities. Partly, this is about ensuring broader stakeholder involvement in the governing bodies of the Research Councils and their institutes , and partly it reflects a need for claims about the social utility of natural science research spending to be held to account against social research evidence . The joint-Research Council Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) programme illustrates the benefits of requiring natural and social scientists to work together in project design and research . [2] However, RELU remains an exception, and the structure of the Research Councils frustrates efforts to develop further interdisciplinary initiatives relating to sustainable food and farming.

35. These issues are particularly important in the context of the current focus on global ‘food security’. Ensuring that farmers, particularly small er -scale producers, have a fair say in setting agricultural policy and research priorities is essential to building long-term food security. The Food & Fairness Inquiry recommended that all publicly-funded institutions undertaking research to promote food security should explicitly ground their research strategies in the principles set out by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science, Knowledge and Technology for Development (IAASTD) – a major review of relevant research and practice, directed by Defra Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Bob Watson. [3]

Members of the Food Ethics Council


Helen Browning OBE (chair), Organic farmer; Director of the Soil Association

Dr Charlie Clutterbuck (trustee), Director of Environmental Practice at Work

David Croft, Director of Sustainable Agriculture at Kraft Foods

Professor Elizabeth Dowler (trustee), Professor of Food and Social Policy in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick

Julia Hailes MBE, Freelance writer and consultant

Dr Michelle Harrison, CEO of TNS-BMRB

Jeanette Longfield MBE, Coordinator: Sustain - the alliance for better food and farming

Dr David Main, Senior Lecturer in Animal Welfare at the University of Bristol

Professor Ben Mepham, Special Professor in Applied Bioethics: University of Nottingham; Visiting Professor in Bioethics, University of Lincoln

Professor Kevin Morgan, Director of Regeneration Institute, Cardiff University

Professor David Pink, Professor of Crop Improvement , Harper Adams University College

Dr Kate Rawles, Senior lecturer in Outdoor Studies at The University of Cumbria

Professor Christopher Ritson (treasurer), Professor of Agricultural Marketing: University of Newcastle upon Tyne

Geoff Tansey (trustee), Joseph Rowntree Visionary for a Just and Peaceful World

[1] Garnett, T. (2008) Cooking up a storm: food, greenhouse gas emissions & our changing climate. FCRN.

[2] Foresight. The Future of Food & Farming. (2011) Final project report. Government Office for Science .

[3] MacMillan, T. & Durrant, R. (2009) Livestock consumption & climate change: a framework for dialogue. FEC.

[4] MacMillan, T. & Middleton, J. (2010) Livestock consumption & climate change: progress & priorities. FEC.

[1] Food Ethics Council (2010) Food Justice: the report of the Food & Fairness Inquiry. FEC.

[2] IfM (2010) Future scenarios for the UK food and drink industry. Food and Drink Federation.

[3] Government Office for Science (2007) Tackling obesities: future choices – summary of key messages. Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

[4] Rowan, I. & MacMillan, T. (2011) Competition law & collaboration for sustainable food. FEC.

[1] FEC (2004) Just knowledge? Governing research on food & farming. FEC. ; FEC (2008) Food distribution: an ethical agenda. FEC.

[1] Opinion Leader (2007) ‘Sustainable behaviour: If we really cared, wouldn’t we pay more?’ Presentation for Food Ethics Council Business Forum, 13th September 2007.

[2] Lewis, K., Tzilivakis, J., Green, A., MacMillan, T., Durrant, R., McGeevor , K. & Bell, S. (2011) Effective approaches to environmental labelling o f food products - FO0419. Defra .

[3] Farm Animal Welfare Forum (2010) Labelling food from farm animals: method of production labels for the European Union. FAWF.

[4] FEC (2011) Nudge politics: changing government, changing lives. Food Ethics magazine, Spring 2011.

[5] Sustainable Consumption Roundtable (2006) I will if you will: towards sustainable consumption. SDC. WWF (2010) Common cause: the case for working with our cultural values. WWF-UK.

[6] MacMillan, T. & Fitzpatrick, I. (2010) Making Local Food Work: influencing consumer buying behaviour. MLFW.

[1] E.g. FEC (2004) Just knowledge? Governing research on food & farming. FEC.

[2] RELU (2008) Land to mouth: exploring the links between sustainable land use and the food we eat. RELU.


[3] 7 April 2011