Sustainable Food - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

3  Improving Accessibility

Access for communities

29.  A range of innovative local food initiatives are playing an important role in providing people with better access to more healthy and sustainable food. Local food networks (or webs) link farmers, growers, community-supported agriculture, processors and suppliers with local food shops and other local food providers such as farmers' markets, food-box schemes and food cooperatives. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has published location reports showing the scale and impact of local food networks in six towns and cities.[53] CPRE argued for policy-making at local and national level to ensure that local and regional food networks can coexist with national-scale retailers which operate with largely national and international supply chains. They argued that:[54]

  • Smaller outlets, and particularly butchers, greengrocers and village stores, were vital for smaller producers to bring their produce to market either directly or through the wholesale system.
  • A local system ensured that there was diversity of supply, a wider range of choice of produce, good nutritional quality (as fresh produce was delivered through shorter supply chains) and provided a 'seed-bed' for new small and medium sized food businesses to innovate and develop their product ranges.
  • Supermarket expansion threatened the viability of smaller independent stores on the high street and in villages. When such shops disappeared, the choice of where to shop and access for those who do not use a car was diminished.

Their research showed that local food webs could give better access to fresh food, support local businesses, and add diversity and character to towns and rural areas. Local food webs played a role in connecting people, through shops and markets, to their wider community and to the surrounding countryside. Smaller retailers interviewed for the CPRE research stocked 50% or more local produce, whereas most supermarkets typically stocked only 1-2% local food. CPRE concluded that, without these smaller outlets, many local producers would struggle to survive.[55]

30.  Sustain noted that a number of localities were already taking steps towards developing sustainable food systems, including London.[56] Others were implementing elements of existing schemes, such as 'Fairtrade Towns' and 'Sustainable Fish Cities'. Sandwell Primary Care Trust argued that, in a global context, producing more fresh food in and around urban areas would help improve resilience against the effects of climate change, increasing global demand for food and diminishing natural resources such as water and fossil fuel resources. And in a local context, they were supporting communities to bring this about, for example through working with allotment users and community agriculture schemes.[57] Sustain argued that the localism agenda could help to bolster such initiatives, and the planning system could also give local communities more power to make their food system more sustainable. However, they also noted that localism was being proposed at the same time as cuts in local government funding, and that the dominant role of large food and agriculture companies would mean that local authorities and other local actors would be too small and under-funded to compete.[58]

31.  CPRE believed that it was important to involve increasing numbers of people in food growing, not only so that they could produce their own food, but also so that they could understand the environmental issues surrounding food production. Transfer of knowledge in this way contributed to creating a more informed body of consumers which could in turn help to increase people's commitment to buying more sustainable produce from established food retail outlets. Research could examine how low-input systems for growing food locally and sustainably might be used by community groups. Some of this work has been done in specific locations, but more is required to help deliver best practice across the UK. As Clare Devereux of Food Matters told us, evidence on the scope for this is now needed nationally, which reflects the difficult economic situation that many communities now find themselves in.[59]

32.  Food Matters wanted to see greater acknowledgement by Government and local authorities of the value of food in our culture and society, and in particular the role that it can play in delivering a range of desirable public policy targets: for example increasing social inclusion, improving educational attainment, reducing food waste, delivering skills and training, improving physical and mental health and creating local employment opportunities.[60] There was a lack of baseline data and evidence on what works to underpin the creation of a sustainable food system. More research was required in a local setting in order to understand what action on healthy diets and climate change would give the best return on any investment of time, money and effort. Food Matters saw such information gathering as a Government responsibility.[61]

33.  Some local authorities and local health authorities have developed food strategies to improve access to sustainable food and the benefits that come from this in their areas. Some strategies cover the whole food system; others focus on specific themes such as health or the environment. The Food Vision website, published by the Local Government Group and the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health, holds a list of examples of food strategies around the country.[62] This pulls together research and good practice by individuals, groups and organisations, and takes into account the implications of food systems on the local economy, community and environment. Such strategies can:

  • Improve understanding and awareness about healthy eating, by working with traditional education partners (such as schools) and also a broad range of community and statutory partners;
  • Reduce barriers to healthy eating in terms of accessibility, affordability and availability;
  • Reduce nutrition-related health inequalities by targeting help on the most vulnerable groups.

34.  Planning policy often fails to recognise the importance of sustainable production and consumption of food. Sustain and the Local Action on Food network saw a need to incorporate food in policy guidance for local authorities in the same way as provided for other essential services, such as water, waste, energy and housing. They called for food policy guidance from Government for planning authorities.[63] CPRE identified areas where local authorities could assist developing local food networks:

  • Creating specific retail and planning policies to encourage diverse local food businesses;
  • Revising local authority procurement policy to source more local food;
  • Supporting and extending existing local markets, including farmers markets;
  • Providing land for allotments.

35.  Access to land for food growing is vital for a sustainable local food system. Food Matters had wanted the 'community right to buy' aspect of the Localism Act to include explicitly a right for a community to buy land for sustainable food production. They argued that food growing within cities had indirect social and health benefits in terms of access to open space, physical activity and education of children.[64] Brighton and Hove Food Partnership saw the value of land in the south east of England is a barrier to the creation of viable small scale food production such as horticulture or small mixed agricultural operations.[65] They argued that local authority plans should support small scale food production and related infrastructure (abattoirs, distribution hubs etc). They welcomed opportunities for more power for local communities through the Localism Act but were concerned that, particularly in an urban setting, the interests of development (housing and industry) could outweigh the need to maintain or create new land for food production. They urged local authorities to ensure that their local plans included opportunities for sustainable local food production.[66] Angela Blair of Sandwell Primary Care Trust described how they monitor and seek to influence planning applications:

We look at the planning applications every week. We see where new hot food takeaways are coming up, any opportunities, new housing developments and so on. We then use health impact assessments, screening checklists for opportunities, and within that there is one on food access, there are things about agriculture production processing, community voluntary sector enterprise. We look at how to integrate the preventive health services within the food policy work and we work with trading standards, environmental health, food safety, planning, housing, transport on accessibility planning. [67]

36.  Sustain believed that the levers in the planning system on what we eat, how we eat it and our long-term physical and mental well-being, could be used more effectively. However, food has not been specifically included in most planning policy (unlike other essentials of human existence such as water, air, transport, and housing). The new National Planning Policy Framework now includes "promot(ing) the health and well-being of the community" as a key objective. Sustain argued that this could be important in delivering more sustainable food to more people, particularly with regards to food shopping and food growing.[68] The new Framework provides a set of core land-use planning principles to underpin both plan-making and development decision-taking, including to:[69]

[...] encourage multiple benefits from the use of land in urban and rural areas, recognising that some open land can perform many functions (such as for wildlife, recreation, flood risk mitigation, carbon storage, or food production).

37.  The National Planning Policy Framework potentially provides local authorities with more powers to provide communities with better access to local food and to be able to grow their own food. However, the NPPF lacks the detail that could assist planning authorities in drawing up local plans to provide for this. The Government should make clear in the subsequent guidance it provides for local authorities that for Local Plans to be consistent with the NPPF they should take account of communities' access to sustainable food and ensure that they are provided with alternatives to unhealthy food options. There should also be provisions in Local Plans to ensure that communities are provided with open spaces to grow their own produce, including for example options for communities or co-operatives to buy land for these purposes. To help develop such guidance, the Government should also identify best practice from leading local authorities in this field and quantify the benefits of developing local food strategies.

Access for producers

38.  Local food networks provide a less conventional but growing route for producers to supply food. One example is community retail or cooperative projects that buy food in bulk direct from suppliers, enabling their members to benefit by getting good food at a more affordable price and providing producers with access to local markets. More supermarkets are developing and updating their sustainability strategies which are providing benefits for local producers and are selecting more sustainable produce[70] but there are still a number of barriers to further improvement, as we discuss below.


39.  Some producers told us that there was a failure in some parts of the food supply chain to pass financial returns fairly to primary food producers, leaving some sectors economically unsustainable. This could have long-term ramifications for the continued ability of suppliers to source produce from UK farmers and also for the well-being of local communities.[71] Ultimately such a state of affairs exports our production base, to countries where food may be produced to lower environmental, health and welfare standards, increasing rather than alleviating the 'unsustainability' of the food system.

40.  The Competition Commission reported in 2008 that UK grocery retailers were in many respects delivering a good deal for consumers but recommended the establishment of a Groceries Supply Code of Practice (GSCOP) and an ombudsman to oversee its application.[72] The NFU believed that where markets were failing to provide fair returns to farmers, and thereby making farming unsustainable, the Groceries Code Adjudicator should intervene for the benefit of consumers and for food security.[73] The Food Ethics Council welcomed the creation of the Adjudicator, though were concerned about its effectiveness:

We do have some concerns about whether it is going to be as effective as many of those in the supply chain would like it to be. We do need to ensure that they can conduct effective inquiries themselves and that they do have some sanctions that if the Codes are not being kept to that they can levy fines, for example. We don't want it to be a toothless watchdog.[74]

41.  The Government published a Draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill in May 2011, to establish the ombudsman. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee took evidence from food producers, who told them that a 'climate of fear' would deter producers from making complaints. The Food and Drink Federation told that Committee that the low number of complaints demonstrated that "the GSCOP will only work fully if there is a proactive Adjudicator in place to police it".[75] The NFU made a similar point and explained that complainants would only come forward if an Adjudicator could guarantee their anonymity.[76] The Committee wanted legislation to be amended to provide for third parties to be able to make complaints to the Adjudicator on behalf of suppliers. They also recommended that reserved provisions to provide the Adjudicator with a power to levy fines against retailers be brought in immediately.[77] In response, the Government stated that:

Our position remains that it is more appropriate for complaints to be lodged directly or indirectly by suppliers, but we are open to considering further arguments on extending the range of those who can trigger an investigation. [...]

The draft Bill provides the Adjudicator with the power to name and shame retailers that are in breach of the code, and we believe that, in a highly competitive market, retailers will not risk reputational damage from unacceptable behaviour towards suppliers.[78]

42.  Food systems are more likely to be sustainable if food reflects value or cost of the environmental impacts of producing it; an area we identified as needing more research (paragraph 18). In the absence of such mechanisms food prices have been relatively low particularly when supplied through supermarkets which are able to bring economies of scale to bear. The Groceries Code Adjudicator's role in delivering fairer prices to producers will be vital in helping all food producers to achieve a fair price for their produce and with the means to invest in less impacting methods of production. The Groceries Code Adjudicator should be established so that it is able to begin investigations following representations from third parties, and it must have the power to fine retailers for breach of the Code.


43.  'Choice editing' involves retailers limiting the range of products they make available to customers. Supermarkets, for example, might be able restrict the sale of produce with high environmental impact, for example, by reducing the numbers of some out-of-season and imported goods. The Food Ethics Council has argued that retailers pursuing choice editing strategies are likely to be at a competitive disadvantage.[79] With the exception of a minority of businesses that position themselves specifically as leaders in the 'ethical' market, businesses that raise the prices of their products or reduce choice risk losing customers to their competitors. They concluded that, in the absence of regulatory intervention by Government, only a coordinated effort by the major businesses across a sector could get past this obstacle.[80] By co-operating and adopting similar choice editing strategies, supermarkets would be able to reduce the risks of pursuing such strategies. However, such collaboration would potentially contravene competition law and expose those involved to challenge by the Office of Fair Trading or by the European Commission. And any regulatory regime with similar aims could also be construed as interference with EU Single Market rules. This barrier would also apply to public procurement through Government Buying Standards (paragraph 45). The Food and Drink Federation's preferred approach was therefore for industry to continue its efforts to make its products as healthy and sustainable as possible, while offering consumers appropriate choices.[81] When we raised this issue with the Minister, he regarded this as primarily an issue for industry to judge:

I recognise that the supermarkets are extremely nervous about competition law. ... We do have periodic meetings with the senior chief executives of the supermarkets, but it is on a very clear agenda that makes sure that ... we can't talk about price or anything that could be construed as collusion. I can see the argument that they would be very nervous of it, yes. You would need to ask a lawyer whether in reality there is something in competition law that says they should not work together on sustainability. I don't know. That would be for a lawyer to judge, but I am very conscious of their sensitivity over anything like that.[82]

44.  In March 2012, the Government announced proposals to create a new Competition and Markets Authority that would bring the Competition Commission and the OFT's competition functions into a single organisation.[83] The Government should amend the Office of Fair Trading's remit to take account of sustainable development while protecting competition, and task the OFT and the Competition & Markets Authority to investigate and clarify the scope for supermarkets to cooperate in developing shared sustainability good practice.


45.  The public sector provides an appropriate means to increase access to sustainable food for both producers and customers. In June 2011 Government Buying Standards for food and catering services were introduced, and came into force for all new catering contracts from September 2011, to ensure that Government buys more sustainable food and gives small and local producers fair access to public contracts worth up to £2 billion a year.[84] The Standards cover Government departments and their agencies and non-departmental public bodied, including the armed services and prisons, but not the NHS or schools.[85]

46.  Friends of the Earth found the Standards for public sector food purchasing weak and argued that the potential that public food procurement has to transform our food system has not been realised.[86] This was particularly evident for the standards on meat and dairy. Jeanette Longfield of Sustain welcomed the Standards, particularly for fish, but thought some parts of them were "a bit feeble". She complained for example that:

The egg standards are rubbish. They have not included 'Red Tractor' even as a basic minimum, which is unspeakably ridiculous. They have not set high enough aspirational standards for organic and [Linking Environment And Farming] certified. Fair trade is pathetic; that should be much higher than it is.

She put these weaknesses down to lobbying from the large food distributors. The NFU argued that the Standards did not recognise that UK farmers and growers work to higher legislative standards, with higher consequential costs, than apply to imports.

47.  A number of local public bodies have already demonstrated the benefits of sourcing more sustainable food and that results can be achieved with minimal costs. The Cornwall Food Programme was developed to address the food supply needs of the NHS in Cornwall.[87] It works in partnership with local producers, suppliers and distributors to encourage them to tender for NHS and other public sector contracts and to purchase and process a significant proportion of Cornish produce for use in patient, visitor and staff meals. It reports increased satisfaction with the quality and taste of the meals, and with 41% of the budget spent on Cornish produce there has been a 67% cut in annual 'food miles' travelled by delivery vehicles. A new farm shop at the Royal Cornwall Hospital enables patients, staff and visitors to buy fresh, local and organic produce and there are plans to develop a home-delivery food-box scheme using NHS courier services. This has all been achieved within the constraints of an existing food budget of £2.50 per patient per day.[88]

48.  According to research by Sustain, over £53 million of Government money had been spent in the last ten years on voluntary initiatives to improve the sustainability of public sector food, with no demonstrable benefit for health or the environment. They, and others, including the SDC, called for standards to be mandatory across the entire public sector.[89] The Minister explained, however, that the Government did not want to force local bodies to adopt the Government standards:

We don't want to make it mandatory [...] We take the view that the localism agenda means exactly that and that, we therefore have to leave it up to local discretion. But we would strongly urge, and hope everybody else would urge, local bodies to follow the Government buying standards.[90]

49.  The Government Buying Standards for food should be extended to cover the wider public sector, to ensure healthy and sustainable food is made accessible to more people and to help establish new markets for producers. Though it is proven that the Standards can be adopted for minimal cost, voluntary measures to promote them have not achieved the necessary improvements across the sector. The Standards must be extended to require local authorities to adopt them across schools and hospitals. It should also continue to raise the Standards further, to reflect existing best practices in particular for eggs, dairy and meat. Effective public food procurement standards could also allow Government to lead by example, and make any new food strategy (paragraph 68) more credible.

53 Back

54   Ev w54 Back

55   Ibid. Back

56   Ev 129 Back

57   Ibid. Back

58   Ibid. Back

59   Q 200 Back

60   Ev 125 Back

61   Ev 129 Back

62   Http:// Back

63   Ev 129 Back

64   Ev 125 Back

65   Ibid. Back

66   Ev w54 Back

67   Q 166 Back

68   Sustain, The NPPF Consultation, 2011. Back

69   Communities and Local Government, National Planning Policy Framework, March 2012. Back

70   For example, Sainsbury's 20 by 20 Sustainability Plan: 

71   Ev 161 Back

72   Competitive Commission, Groceries Investigation, 2008. Back

73   Ev 161 Back

74   Ev 164 Back

75   Written evidence taken by the Environmental Food and Rural Affairs Committee for its inquiry into the Draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, GCA 04 [Food and Drink Federation], HC (2010-12) 1199-i. Back

76   Written evidence taken by the Environmental food and Rural Affairs Committee for its inquiry into the Draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, GCA 07 [National Farmers' Union], HC (2010-12) 1199-i. Back

77   Letter from Miss Anne McIntosh MP, Chair of the EFRA Select Committee to Mr Adrian Bailey MP, Chair of the BIS Select Committee on 22 June 2011. Back

78   HC Deb, 23 Jan 2012, c49. Back

79   Ev 164 Back

80   IbidBack

81   Ev 122 Back

82   Q 362 Back

83   BIS, A Competition Regime for Growth: A Consultation on Options for Reform, Government Response, March 2012.  Back

84   Ev 154 Back

85   HC Deb, 16 June 2011, c78WS. Back

86   Friends of the Earth, Sustainable Livestock Bill and symposium: one year progress report, March 2012. Back

87 Back

88   Soil Association, A fresh approach to hospital food: The Cornwall Food Programme, 2007. Back

89   Sustain, A decade of hospital food failure, 2009. Back

90   Q 370 Back

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Prepared 13 May 2012