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Our food system is broken – government must help fix it


Sustainable seafoodThe recent important report on sustainable food by the Environmental Audit Committee makes some uncomfortable recommendations – such as eating less meat and restricting junk food advertising. It also highlights where the government’s own policies are lacking – like its standards for buying meat and dairy.

But these aren’t reasons for putting it in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile. Government needs to go further on food, fast…

The EAC’s main finding was clear: the government needs a strategy to deal with our “unhealthy and environmentally damaging food system”. So there can be no excuse for government inaction.

In fact, although the report makes good recommendations, I believe that in some areas it doesn’t go far enough. The committee avoided talking about the need for government to lead on sustainable diets – something there’s already been widespread demand for.

Committee chair Joan Walley said our food system is failing. It uses vast amounts of water, is a driving force behind greenhouse emissions and biodiversity loss and a major cause of land use change, soil erosion and oceanic dead zones.

Globally, 1.5 billion people are overweight or obese while another billion people suffer from malnutrition and hunger.

What we eat isn’t just a problem in poorer, ‘developing’ countries either. In the UK, diet-related health problems cost more than any other non-communicable disease, including smoking. At a recent European congress on obesity it’s predicted that without decisive action, 40% of UK males will be obese by 2030 and diet-related ill health will cost £320 billion.

Our food system is broken, and government has an important role in fixing it.

The government keeps saying it doesn’t want to be seen to be ”telling people what to eat”, and the committee recognises this understandable scepticism about “anything that seems like nanny-statism“.

But the government already gives advice on healthy eating and, in light of the obesity crisis, the evidence seems to suggest that just subtly ‘nudging’ people into changing their behaviour won’t deliver change fast enough.

So business as usual is not an option. We believe that taking a holistic approach, across the whole ‘values chain’, is the only way forward – if we want a food system that protects people’s health and the environment while ensuring a varied, viable farming system that supports national and rural economies.

We particularly need to look at livestock – how much is produced and consumed – and make sure it’s truly sustainable, taking into account direct and indirect costs. And the government should promote the production of temperate fruit and vegetables which are suited to our climatic conditions, and invest much more in the UK horticultural industry.

We also believe the government should support more sophisticated, interconnected, policy-making and the strengthening of national and supranational governance and decision-making. This will include supporting more research into the links between food production and ‘ecosystem services’ – in other words putting more value on the natural world and what it provides (often thought of as ‘free’).

And it means championing national and international governance and policies that support and reward farming systems and countries that provide these kinds of essential ‘public goods’ – like clean air, clean water and soil preservation.

Although the government has made some steps towards addressing sustainability in the food system, including convening DEFRA’s Green Food Project, we believe there’s an urgent need to go further.

The Environmental Audit Committee says the government needs to develop a truly comprehensive food policy and not shy away from addressing difficult issues such as meat consumption. We hope this time their call isn’t ignored.

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