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Green Food Project: a smorgasbord of reheated ideas?


DEFRA’s Green Food Project (GFP), launched today, states it’s the start of a process that hopes to steer the UK food system to a sustainable future, where it remains a world leader in producing high-quality food. Food that contributes to a healthy population and conserves the natural environment. We completely agree with those aims, but we don’t believe the GFP report goes as far as it should in that direction.

The Green Food Project came out of the government’s Natural Environment White Paper. It aims to “enhance the natural environment while increasing food production”. As such, you’d expect the environment to take centre stage, or at least be on a par with farming. But that’s not the case – the GFP report seems very focused on food production.

Wheat field in DevonThe Green Food Project report contains subgroup test cases on bread and wheat crops. © Edward Parker / WWF-Canon

The GFP was never set up to look at the entire food system, only specific components of it. There is no representation from the horticultural industry for example, though there is a ‘subgroup’ on bread. (Five subgroups explored different test cases for the project: ‘wheat crops’, ‘dairy sector’, ‘bread’, ‘a curry dish’, and ‘geographical areas’.)

It’s ensured there is a cross-section of stakeholders on the project, from the usual suspects like the National Farmers Union and the British Retail Consortium to Sodexo (food and facilities service provider), Which?, the RSPB, and ourselves.

DEFRA convened these diverse groups and in a very short time has come up with five sub-group reports and a set of recommendations – mainly for other stakeholders though one or two are for government. They even try to tackle consumption and meat. But these recommendations do tend to be very woolly, and certainly at WWF we believe they should be more targeted with a clearer plan of action.

The problem for me is some of the framing. Some groups, like farming bodies and food manufacturers, have said the UK needs to produce more food, claiming it’s a moral responsibility to ensure we tackle food security. This is untrue. This narrative would have suited a few groups very well, making some economic sense but leaving little or no room for small-scale farmers and the natural world.

It’s good to see the GFP report doesn’t quote the redundant statistic about needing to produce 70% more food by 2050. This is good for two reasons. Firstly, it’s no longer supported by evidence – it originally came from the the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation who now say the figure should be a maximum of 60%.

Secondly, this figure is only one possible scenario, and is based on ‘business as usual’. If we tackle all the inherent problems of the food system – for instance waste, poor distribution and over-consumption – the UN says we actually won’t need to produce any more food.
To be honest the real figure will be somewhere in the middle. It would be nice to see this emphasised, but you can’t have everything.

There’s already enough food to feed 8 billion people, but we’re busy cutting down trees at a rate of knots, using the excuse that we need more land to grow food. Producing more is not the answer – let’s look at waste, distribution and consumption first.

Livewell Food DishesLivewell food dishes show that you don't need to skimp on tastiness to be sustainable and healthy © WWF

It’s great to see sustainable diets and food mentioned, with a clear recommendation for the government to convene a stakeholder group to define the concept (I do think Livewell is a great start on this too), one that is cross-sectorial, including health and perhaps even developmental bodies and industry and consumer groups.

Let’s hope it’s not just a talking shop and an excuse for inaction, and it comes up with some real tangible outcomes.

Sustainable food and health is a global problem. There are over 1.5 billion people overweight or obese. The global middle class is around 3 billion – and they’re not just in the rich countries – and they are driving over-consumption. If we find a solution here in the UK, it could benefit the world.

As part of this the report recognises that retailers, food manufacturers, government and consumers all have a role to play. (Though this isn’t in the main report, but rather in the ‘curry’ subgroup example.)

For too long the industry’s excuse for inaction has been that they only respond to consumer demand. But we know, for example, that retailers regularly push certain products through stock promotions and even the way they lay out their stores.

Cow © S MorganFoods that are good for people and the planet are lower in livestock products and contain more veg © S Morgan

We hope we can now look forward to working together transparently and take collaborative action on this issue. Perhaps even the blame-shifting will finally stop and collective responsibility embraced.

The Green Food Project is an okay start, but it’s only a start. There are lots of issues that have been ignored – for example the role of regulation and especially the role of the food retail sector – but there is an opportunity to pick these up in the next phase.

We now need to see concrete actions and a timetable for them. We need all stakeholders to take part. This must include the horticultural industry, the potato growers and smallholders.

If we’re going to produce more food let’s focus on fruit and veg, not meat and dairy. We have the perfect climate in the UK and a great tradition to build on. Our food producers are world leaders – let’s work together to make sure they remain so.

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