Food security: demand, consumption and waste - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

2  Consumer choice and food security

3. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) concluded in its 2012 Green Food Project that the future sustainability of food production was tied to demand-side issues.[4] Our inquiry started from this point: the way in which consumers' actions affect their own and others' access to sustainable supplies of affordable and healthy food.

4. Retailers told us that consumers' purchasing decisions play a central role in driving food production systems. Tesco, for example, said that "customers have always influenced our procurement and supply chain practices".[5] Farmers and other food producers and processors have a similar set of market drivers spurring their production and marketing decisions so that procurement decisions along the whole food supply chain aim to fulfil customers' demands closely. This consumer demand can be used to promote sustainable food supplies, as the Government has recognised. Defra's Sustainable Consumption report published in 2013 recommended actions to change both consumer and producer behaviours, and noted that a key question was how consumer demand could be influenced so as to deliver so-called 'public good'.[6] However, individuals' food purchasing decisions reflect varied needs, wishes and constraints. Consumers report that price is by some margin their top consideration on food issues, against which other factors ranks as lower priorities. However, other factors including food waste and health issues are cited as considerations.[7] Tesco noted that customers valued a range of things and did not simply chose the cheapest products: "price matters but so does quality, freshness, range, availability, service, trust and convenience". Tesco noted, however, the underlying truism that customers buy based on "what matters most to them".[8] Hence if sustainability matters to a consumer, for example in terms of a product's impact on the environment or on British farming, retailers will have an incentive to supply products that meet this criterion.

5. Although UK food supply systems are largely market driven, they operate within institutional and policy frameworks that shape supply chains. Regulatory frameworks set certain minimum national and EU standards pertaining amongst other things to production, competition, market and trade regulation, quality and safety of food. These rules serve to constrain individual choice in some respects and may also directly or indirectly affect the security of the food chain. In particular, the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CfP) have an extensive impact on food supply. For example, CfP quotas limit the catch of specific fish stocks and new CAP greening rules may promote growth of certain crops such as legumes; this in turn influences the availability and hence price of those products.[9]

6. Food critic Jay Rayner argued that, with 95% of the food retail market controlled by just nine companies, larger retailers' market dominance gave them a "massive social responsibility" as "custodians of the food supply". He considered that the Government had a "role to mediate that supply" so as to guarantee future supplies.[10] However, we received no evidence arguing for the development of further specific regulatory mechanisms to constrain consumer choice in the interests of national food security. George Eustice MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told us that he did not see it as the Government's role to "tell people what they should buy" but rather to support the choices people make.[11] This approach is consistent with an overall deregulatory approach at national level to reduce the bureaucratic burden on businesses and at EU level to open agricultural production more to market forces.[12]

7. The myriad decisions made by millions of individual consumers every day cumulatively play a considerable role in determining how the UK sources its food. Harnessing these decisions to align with 'public good' objectives can be a powerful way of ensuring the delivery of public food security goals but this should not be achieved through heavy-handed rules or unnecessary constraints on choice.

8. We do not argue in this report for a regulatory shift towards compulsion over consumers' food purchasing decisions. We therefore make recommendations for more co-ordinated and focussed actions by the Government, food producers and suppliers, and the third sector to support consumer choices that enhance the ability of all to obtain sufficient safe, healthy and affordable food. We support a robust regulatory framework for the nation's food production and retail systems; consumers must be able to make their choices about what food to buy and from where to buy it knowing that there are strong measures in place to protect their interests.

Sourcing our food

Buying British

9. Defra policies and programmes such as the National Farmers' Union (NFU) Back British Farming Charter aim to encourage consumers to buy British products in the interests of supporting UK farming.[13] Morrisons highlighted its purchase of only British beef, pork and lamb for sale under its own brand label saying that sourcing UK products had beneficial impacts on the sustainability of UK farming and food production.[14] In addition, maintaining UK sources of foodstuffs contributes to secure food supply chains. Professor Chris Elliott, the author of the Government's Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks,[15] told us during our Food Supply Networks inquiry that the more steps there are in the supply chain the greater the number of risks.[16] Sourcing food from the UK rather than from more remote international markets usually leads to shorter supply chains and, although this may not necessarily reduce the number of steps, retailers' procurement approaches suggest that they view sourcing local (UK or near European) products as an important part of their risk management. Tesco told us that it is shortening supply chains and buying British where possible. For example it sources all its beef from Britain and Ireland because that is "what customers find to be the appropriate answer" as they are interested in its "direct local provenance".[17]

10. Retailers recognise that consumers frequently demand UK products. Morrisons told us that "we know it's important to our customers [to find British meat]. If it's good for customers and there is a preference in the marketplace for British products it's also likely to be good for British farmers".[18] Nonetheless, Tesco cautioned that stocking only British products across many of its ranges, such as all of the chicken in ready meals, would cause planners and farmers concern that it might distort the market and farmers might not have capacity to meet demand.[19] Further, the consequence of a diverse source of supplies is that consumers can benefit from access to a wider choice of products.

11. The complex operation of supply chains means that it is not simple to map the relationship between UK customers' demands for British produce and the security of the nation's food supplies. Nonetheless, if UK consumer demand for national produce were to increase, this could enhance the sustainability of British farming.

12. We endorse the work of the Government together with farmers, food producers and processors, and retailers to promote UK food to consumers to help ensure the long-term future of national food production.

13. In terms of ensuring environmental sustainability, many make the assumption that local produce, with fewer 'food miles' from farm to fork, is the more sustainable choice. The Minister took this view noting that "if we can buy locally produced food, that generally has better environmental outcomes".[20] However others, such as food critic Jay Rayner, considered that a simple measurement of 'food miles' could produce a misleading indicator.[21] The relative sustainability of a product will depend not only on a vast range of inputs, including nutrients, energy, water, transport, packaging and labour, but also on how these have been supplied and how efficiently they are used. Mr Rayner noted that a range of factors affected whether sourcing food from the UK was more or less environmentally sustainable than importing the same product. He considered it was not harmful, for example, to import apples and lamb from New Zealand but questioned the sustainability of imports of some other products such as asparagus.[22] Mr Rayner argued that international trade in foodstuffs could ensure that products were grown in the most appropriate places so that buying imports should not be portrayed as necessarily less sustainable. The Sustainable Restaurant Association also told us that purchasing indigenous-type imported foods may sometimes have a lower carbon footprint than those produced within the UK.[23]

14. There has been a growth in the number of local markets such as farmers' markets which can provide an effective route to supply fresh, local produce. This can deliver benefits to the local economy and environment as well as improving individuals' access to healthy food.[24]

15. Technological and process advances have allowed UK consumers to choose to buy home-grown products such as soft fruits for longer periods of the year, as we noted in our previous Food Security report.[25] The Government's response to that report outlined a range of work to support this, including by the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board and by commercial organisations including supermarkets and fruit growers, in areas such as the production of apricots, which had not previously been grown on a major scale.[26]

16. We welcome the co-ordinated efforts of those producing and retailing fresh produce to exploit longer growing seasons for some fruit and vegetable products. Defra, together with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, should continue to work closely with producers and retailers to develop and widen markets for these products.

Securing a healthy diet

17. One aspect of the definition of food security is that individuals should have access to sufficient healthy food. However rising levels of diet-related health problems, notably those linked to obesity, indicate that many UK citizens are not eating a healthy diet.[27] The Faculty of Public Health of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom reported that children and adults eat 50% more saturated fat, and children eat 50% more sugar, than the recommended levels.[28] Furthermore, children eat only one quarter and adults only half the amount of fruit and vegetables recommended. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimated that the health impacts of poor diets and unhealthy lifestyles cost the UK more than £16 billion a year, a figure which could rise to £50 billion by 2050.[29]

18. As we discuss below, there are affordability constraints for some people in accessing healthy food. Recent research by the University of Leeds found, for a range of typical meals, that the healthiest in dietary terms cost £6.63, about double the £3.29 price of the least healthy meal.[30] Nevertheless, UK citizens in the main have a vast array of choices over the food they buy and eat, with many healthy options available at the same time as less healthy options. However, a large number of people who can afford to choose healthy options do not make healthy food choices as effectively as they might. There appears to be no shortage of advice and guidance, based on a range of robust scientific research, such as the 'Change4Life' programme,[31] and the 5 A DAY campaign promulgated by the Department for Health advising people to eat a healthy diet including sufficient fruit and vegetables.[32] Public Health England produces a range of promotional and information material to support its 'EatWell' plate depicting the components of a healthy diet,[33] and local government is active in promoting healthy eating to help fulfil its public health duties.[34] For example, many initiatives are taking place in schools to help educate children of all ages on how to cook and eat healthily.[35] Furthermore, retailers play a significant role in promoting healthy diets. For example Sainsbury's provides extensive healthy eating advice including recipes and links to Government campaigns such as 5 A DAY.[36] Morrisons told us about a local store initiative to highlight its fruit and vegetable section including life-size cardboard cut-outs of local health professionals with messages to buy more of these products. Over a five week period sales of fresh fruit and vegetables rose by 20% and of frozen versions by 26%.[37]

19. However, despite these efforts by a range of public and private organisations, witnesses were critical of their impacts. For example, the Fresh Produce Consortium told us that whilst programmes such as 5 A DAY had achieved results, a more ambitious programme was needed to tackle obesity and other public health issues, including promoting fresh fruit and vegetable consumption since people still ate only 3.9 portions a day on average.[38] At the same time households are throwing away about a fifth of the fresh produce they buy. Furthermore, the University of Oxford's Food Climate Research Network told us that the food system was currently failing in its primary purpose "to feed us adequately", noting that policy makers focussed too often on "producing more food" rather than addressing multifaceted "environmental, health and equity challenges".[39] The Network criticised the lack of a strategic policy framework to underpin the diverse activities of many interested parties, urging the Government to provide "policy leadership to set the direction of travel on sustainable food consumption" and support investment in research into "actions effective in shifting consumption patterns in healthier and more sustainable directions".[40]

20. Despite efforts to promote healthy eating, the UK is still experiencing high levels of health problems linked to poor diet, in particular problems caused by excessive consumption. While we welcome the work of a range of government departments, local authorities and retailers to promote healthy food choices there needs to be greater integration between the bodies, with firm strategic leadership from the Department for Health. The Government must ensure that innovative local approaches are disseminated to enable far greater numbers of councils, supermarkets and local NHS bodies to develop more effective means of targeting messages.

21. Defra collects and publishes a range of data on food consumption,[41] alongside that published by other government departments including Public Health England.[42] However, these data do not take into account wastage, even though Defra accepts that some 22% of edible fruit and vegetable purchases are not eaten.[43]

22. Government policies require a robust evidence basis, yet Defra currently uses data that do not reflect consumption accurately. The Department should use data published by Public Health England on nutritional intakes to refine its own estimates so as to take into account food bought but not subsequently consumed.

4   Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, Green Food Project Conclusions, July 2012 Back

5   Q120 Back

6   Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, Sustainable Consumption Report: Follow-Up to the Green Food Project, July 2013 Back

7   Food Standards Agency, Biannual Public Attitudes Tracker, Wave 8, May 2014, reports that the top wider food issues of total (spontaneous plus prompted) concern were food prices (51%), the amount of sugar in food (48%), and the amount of salt in food (47%). Back

8   Tesco (FS2 04) Back

9   Q185 Back

10   Q6 Back

11   Q173 Back

12   See Government Red Tape Challenge agriculture theme webpages on UK approaches, and Europa webpages on CAP reform. Back

13   See NFU website, Back British Farming Charter Back

14   Q35 Back

15   HM Government, Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks , July 2014 Back

16   Oral evidence taken on 18 November 2014, HC (2014-15) 771, Q6 Back

17   Q120 Back

18   Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc (FS2 01) para 9 Back

19   Q120 Back

20   Q178 Back

21   Q3 Back

22   Jay Rayner, Greedy Man in a Hungry World, (London 2013), chapter 7 Back

23   Q15 Back

24   See webpages Back

25   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2014-15, Food Security, HC 243 Back

26   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2014-15, HC 702 Back

27   "Diet and obesity are a crisis for NHS and families" Daily Mail, 12 June 2014 Back

28   Faculty of Public Health of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom, Food poverty and health Briefing Statement Back

29   Waste and Resources Action Programme (FS03) para14 Back

30   University of Leeds, What is the cost of a healthy diet? Using diet data from the UK women's cohort study, July 2014 Back

31   See Change4Life webpages Back

32   See NHS 5 A DAY webpages Back

33   See Public Health England EatWell webpages Back

34   See for example Gateshead case study on salt reduction, in the Local Government Association, Changing behaviours in public health: to nudge or to shove? October 2013 Back

35   See for example Food Standards Agency School-based food initiatives Back

36   See Sainsbury's healthy eating webpages Back

37   Q38 Back

38   Fresh Produce Consortium (FS2 06) para 16 Back

39   Food Climate Research Network, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford (FS2 07) Back

40   Food Climate Research Network, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford (FS2 07) Back

41   For example, Defra publishes an annual Family Food report on household food purchases Back

42   For example, Public Health England, Food and Nutrition Survey Back

43   Defra, Family Food 2012, p54 Back

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Prepared 22 January 2015