This Thursday, Part 2 of the much-anticipated National Food Strategy was released. Spearheaded by Henry Dimbleby, the project was commissioned by the Government to conduct an independent review of the UK’s food system and provide recommendations for improvement.
Like most things in 2020, Part 1 of the Strategy had to adapt to COVID-19; rather than explore the general strengths and weakness of the food system as first proposed, the report took a long-overdue look at issues of hunger, ill-health and food standards in the UK. Following publication, four of the recommendations were agreed by the Government, the most notable being an extension to the Holiday Activities and Food Programme in schools which – thanks in part to footballer Marcus Rashford – helped feed our most disadvantaged children over the winter months.
Part 2, The Plan, takes a systems approach that scopes the original remit of Part 1 and details the damage our food system is doing to people and the planet, as well as the barriers to change and the interventions that can help prevent system failure. The recommendation that we’re most excited about? The Global Farm Metric (GFM).
The GFM is now a large coalition of farmers, major supermarkets, banks and retailers. Started by the Sustainable Food Trust six years ago, it began as a means to measure on-farm sustainability across the globe in a common way.
The GFM is recommended in chapter 6, Exposing the Invisibility of Nature. In this chapter, the National Food Strategy highlights the destruction associated with the economics of the global food system. The reason for this, it says, is simple: ‘There is no balancing feedback loop to stop us destroying Nature. By almost all of the measurements that we use to value human activity, Nature is invisible.’ In other words, our economic systems treat Nature as an infinite resource, an invisible entity that does not hold a finite value – financial or otherwise. As a result, the damage incurred through our food and farming systems is not internalised, and the true cost of food is not reflected in the pricing but passed on to the consumer in hidden ways, such as climate change, water pollution, ill health and taxation.
How do we change this? To make nature visible, measure the impacts of food and farming systems and internalise hidden costs; the National Food Strategy recommends using the GFM. Unlike other metrics, the GFM is a harmonised and holistic framework that is accessible to all farmers. Crucially, the GFM – as the name implies – could measure the impact of farms worldwide and provide a common language of sustainability, thus avoiding the siloed thinking associated with solutions on a national level. With all farmers able to measure their impacts, Nature can be made visible and the true cost of food can be revealed, accelerating the transition to more sustainable farming systems. The GFM, however, can do far more than that. By providing a common language for sustainability, the GFM could be used to inform global trade agreements. Indeed, number 10 of the National Food Strategy recommendations highlights the urgent need for common ‘minimum environmental standards’, particularly in light of the forthcoming trade negotiations with the United States and Brazil. The UK Government should take heed and use the COP26 platform to highlight the need for a common framework.
The GFM also measures sustainability in a comprehensive and meaningful way, avoiding the narrow thinking associated with carbon calculations, for instance. To take an example, while we are thrilled the National Food Strategy recognises that grazing livestock can build soil fertility and restore habitats, we are concerned that it leans more towards the intensive rearing of animals due to conclusions that intensive systems have a lower carbon impact than extensive grazing systems. Such a perspective, however, neglects other metrics which are key to whole system health, such as biodiversity, water quality, social capital and more. The GFM has 11 categories of sustainability that takes the whole system into account, making sure that the true cost of different systems is revealed.
It follows that, by measuring these systems in a holistic and comprehensive way, the GFM can help farmers make incremental improvements to their practices – because you can’t manage what you don’t measure. At a national level, the data collected could be used to financially incentivise sustainable farming by directing subsidies towards those that have a positive environmental impact and making the polluter pay. Scaled up, the data could be used to monitor and progress national and global sustainability goals, helping to achieve recommendation 14 of the National Food Strategy: ‘Set clear targets and bring in legislation for long-term change’.
It is clear that the GFM can help support and unlock barriers to change in numerous other areas of the National Food Strategy. It is time for the Government to step up and support the recommendations set in the National Food Strategy and support the work of the GFM which is key to achieving so many of its goals.