Beyond Business as Usual, a new report from the Food Ethics Council (FEC), has announced that the era of cheap food is over and that the prevention of further social injustice and environmental degradation requires rapid action. In outlining questions which recent weather extremities, economic downturn, and the horse meat scandal have brought to the fore, it concludes that business as usual is no longer an option in ensuring access to safe and affordable food.

The paper is the result of a two year investigation into the operational constraints of current food systems. It aims to identify what moving ‘beyond business as usual’ might actually mean for business, government and civil society, with the firm intent of moving beyond rhetoric to practical, transformative action.

Information for the report was derived largely from sustained dialogue with industry and government stakeholders, as well as key public servants, campaigners and academics. Alongside this, businesses were asked to highlight the main hurdles for them in achieving their sustainability goals, and to identify the boundaries to future progression.

In identifying difficulties faced by businesses, the report seeks to illuminate a means of effecting change by highlighting the key issues that were reported to be obstructive. Due to the scale and interrelated nature of the food system, composing a blueprint for action would be more than ambitious. Instead, the paper’s outcomes take the form of a series of ‘priorities’ for action.

To mark the report’s launch, the Food Ethics Council invited an array of people representing different perspectives and interests in food production to attend a lively debate on the weaknesses, promise, and sites of change within the food system. Helen Browning OBE took the chair over a panel which included Tristram Stuart (author and longstanding food waste campaigner), Julian Hunt (Coca-Cola Enterprises), Jeanette Longfield (Co-ordinator of Sustain) and Andrew Thornton (MD of Thornton’s Budgens).

The panel discussed issues within the current food system and their hopes for the future. The prevailing orthodoxy of the growth model was swiftly identified as the site of challenge and subsequent debates grappled with the impossibility of infinite economic growth in a finite world. There was also a strong focus upon food waste in its myriad forms, encompassing issues such as DEFRA’s food redistribution network, land management reform and the establishment of the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, which aims to ensure that large retailers treat their suppliers fairly and lawfully.

Tristam Stuart gave some encouraging examples of the progress made on the issue of food waste in recent years. An issue that was completely stifled fifteen years ago is now regarded as a global top line priority – consumers are being successfully coaxed into buying ‘ugly’ fruit and veg and it is now the fastest growing sector of the fresh produce market, saving over 300,000 tons of waste. Christine Lagarde, IMF Managing Director, has identified it as a number one priority. And yet, this is marginal in the grand scheme of things.

Stuart proposed that at a government level we need to lift the ban on feeding food waste to pigs and chickens. Is this not the very reason we domesticated these species several thousand years ago? From a legislative point of view, Stuart found this ban to be the most scientifically unjustified and socially unjust piece of legislation in the EU.

Jeanette Longfield shared her view that the way the market operates has to change. Food prices must reflect the full social and environmental costs of production. With this, Sustain are boasting an organizational attempt to make real the internalizing of the externalities debate, calling for a duty on sugary drinks so that manufacturers might begin to internalize the potential costs to consumer health. Sustain’s recent report states that the government could raise £1bn a year from doing so and they have been urging George Osborne to introduce the duty in his budget in March. The majority of the money raised could then be invested into a ‘Children’s Future Fund’ for programmes to improve children’s health and future well-being.

This demand for food duties or sustainability taxes is one of twenty or so proposed measures offered within the report to accelerate progress. Other advancing solutions included ethically minded choice editing, a practise which responds to the question of whether everything which could be sold should be sold, and urges companies to responsibly edit certain products out of their lines for ethical reasons. The role of civil society organisations and consumer cooperatives in facilitating the alignment of consumer and company interests was equally emphasized. However, the Food Ethics Council acknowledge that these incremental improvements do not add up to the change that is needed.

In discussing issues of consumer demand in relation to a lack of government leadership and commercial incentives, the paper finds that businesses and government are largely looking to consumers to lead the way in sustainable consumption. Both government and businesses are presented as being largely limited by short-termism, alongside a lack of incentive that reaches beyond ‘win-win’ initiatives such as cost neutral sustainability measures. This is put down to a lack of solid sustained leadership.

When participants were asked what they thought the government’s role should be in enabling businesses to overcome obstacles, it was felt that the government needed to overcome their non-interventionist policy in pursuit of one which clearly supports the goal of a sustainable food system, without current contradictions identified in the report. A policy environment in which the global food industry is left to address the changes facing the food system will remain flawed with voluntary agreements distorting the level playing field required to prevent businesses from being undercut by less progressive competitors.

It was also asserted that businesses could do more towards sustainability within their own operations and that this could be facilitated by engagement with other businesses and citizens. Retailers, on the other hand, could make better use of the sophisticated tools they possess to influence people’s food choices.

Finally, there’s a widespread recognition that the future requires greater emphasis to be placed on healthy diets. The effort that goes into environmental sustainability in businesses is far greater than that which goes into delivering health benefits. Health benefits do not provide the same financial incentives for businesses as reducing their energy consumption. During these times, when businesses are looking for ways to decrease their spending, we need to find ways to ensure that the new variable cost for businesses should not be the cost to our own health.

In all, the report gives a nuanced picture of the tensions between government, business and the consumer in facing the challenges of moving towards a more sustainable food system. Although the report includes examples of successful and effective government and business partnerships and moments of consumer influence, it also highlights a degree of mutual recriminations between business and government, and a feeling that stepping up to challenge is not, in the short term, worth the risk or even currently feasible for many.

It’s evident that there’s a lot of ground to be covered but it seems imperative that organisations like the Food Ethics Council do keep talking to industry in recognition that a constructive and collaborative relationship with the business sector is essential to advancing ethical and sustainable practices.

Ultimately, the great remaining worry the for all those not involved in the report is that, for these companies, business goes on as usual.

The report is available for download here.

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