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Sustainable diets good for consumers, farmers and the environment

10/10/11
A new paper by WWF and the Food Ethics Council (FEC) argues that Government has a clear role, and a mandate, to promote sustainable food consumption in the UK.
Sustainable diets good for consumers, farmers and the environment

The new report, A Square Meal, suggests that, despite the inherent complexities, it is possible to achieve the goals of promoting healthier diets, reducing the environmental impacts of food, and supporting British farmers and producers.

The report finds that western-style diets are increasingly unsustainable, both because of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of the food we eat, and because of the pressure on land use and production of other commodities associated with a diet high in meat, such as grains or soya.

However, to achieve more sustainable food consumption, the paper argues that it is essential to ensure a fair deal for farmers and consumers, and make sure that British businesses do not face a competitive disadvantage. WWF and FEC therefore make certain recommendations within the report:

 

  • The UK’s strict targets to reduce emissions from production, though crucial, could drive supply chains overseas and simply ‘off-shore’ greenhouse gas emissions. To help address this, WWF and FEC recommend Government adopts consumption-based emissions targets in the UK, and press for international climate change agreements to do likewise.
  • The recent Natural Environment White Paper says producers should pay the full environmental costs of production, but few producers have the bargaining power to pass those costs on to retailers and consumers, and so influence their behaviour. The paper recommends rapidly implementing the planned Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA), with the powers it needs to stamp out abuses in supply chain power.
  • To send the right message to stakeholders and facilitate a collaborative approach between retailers and producers, government should take a lead in defining the key principles of a healthy and sustainable diet.
  • Allowing supermarkets to support sustainable supply chains and consumption through ‘choice editing’, would require supermarkets to collaborate with each other in ways that could be challenged by the competition authorities [1]. In creating a new UK Consumer and Markets Authority, merging the OFT and the Competition Commission, sustainability and health considerations should be formally recognised in the implementation of competition policy.

 

In addition, the groups call on Government to take a lead on sustainable food consumption. That the new Government Buying Standards (GBS) for food procurement are centred on sustainability and nutrition is a welcome step, and the Government has the opportunity to go further by simplifying the advice that it already provides to consumers about food, combining information on healthy eating and sustainability. [2]

The paper also argues that further support for UK farmers is vital and in this respect backs measures such as clarifying country-of-origin labelling and reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Lucy Young, Senior Policy Advisor WWF-UK, said: “WWF supports the great strides taken by the food and farming industry to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. But ours and other’s evidence shows that we will not meet greenhouse gas reduction targets through changes in production methods alone – we also need to change the types of food we eat. This report highlights how government can support change whilst protecting farmer’s livelihoods. A key starting point is for them to take a lead on defining a sustainable diet.”

Tom MacMillan, Executive Director at the FEC, said: “We challenged environmental groups and farmers to think about the practicalities behind the debates about sustainable eating. How can today’s policies, investments and market development place farmers well to thrive in a decade’s time, when energy prices will be even higher, and household spending further squeezed? Government can take some crucial steps to help without breaking stride from its current priorities.”

A Square Meal was produced as part of the Livestock Dialogues, a process of engagement, coordinated by the FEC and WWF-UK, between producers, policy makers and environmental groups over the role changing livestock consumption has in tackling climate change.

Notes to editors

  1. Retailers in particular are nervous about collaborating because their previous attempt to ensure a higher return for dairy farmers was penalised by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).
  2. The Livewell Plate, developed by WWF-UK and the Rowett Institute, takes a first step in addressing this need. Based on the Food Standards Agency ‘Eatwell plate’, it proposes a weekly menu that is good for both human health and the planet. It promotes the simple principles of eating more fruit, vegetables and cereals, but less meat and highly processed foods.
  3. A Square Meal summary is available here: http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/a_square_meal_summary.pdf
  4. The full report is available here: http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/a_square_meal.pdf
  5. The reports with FEC form part of WWF-UK’s wider One Planet Food programme. This programme incorporates the whole food chain, from the production of commodities (like palm oil and soya) through processing and on to consumption and disposal. As part of the One Planet Food initiative, WWF-UK is working to help guide and support the development of a food system that can fulfil the UK’s nutritional, social and economic needs, whilst reducing key environmental impacts.
  6. The Food Ethics Council is an independent advisory body that works towards a food system that is fair and healthy for people and the environment. Our advice to business, government and civil society helps find a way through controversial issues and supports better choices in food and farming.