Analysis: Muddled food policy puts UK at bottom of the class

This year’s Food Sustainability Index ranks the UK among the laggards of Europe – and that’s before Brexit hits the industry. By Nick Hughes.

Just as Brexit negotiations threaten to reach a harmonious conclusion (we can dream, can’t we?) news breaks that gives Britain’s EU neighbours fresh cause to cast disdainful gazes across the Channel.

Published this week, the 2018 Food Sustainability Index (FSI) ranks the UK among the poorest performers in Europe on a range of key indicators, a result that policy experts attribute to the continuing absence of a coherent government strategy on food.

Developed by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition and the Economist Intelligence Unit, the FSI ranks countries across a spectrum of 89 sustainability measures, from food waste per head and childhood obesity, to sustainability of fish stocks and working conditions in food and farming.

On a global scale, the UK finds itself nestled in the upper mid-table, 24th out of the 67 countries in this year’s expanded index, which is topped by France and includes countries from the global north and the global south.

Yet compared with our European peers, the UK’s performance looks decidedly mediocre. Of the 28 countries currently in the EU, the UK ranks a mere 16th, prompting the Food Ethics Council to call for the government to deliver a “bold and integrated food strategy” that ensures the UK delivers “good food for all for ever”.

The news is not exclusively bleak. The UK scores well in some areas of the FSI, such as the quality of policies to address food loss, provision of compulsory nutrition education and quality of animal welfare regulation.

But in many areas the UK languishes near the foot of the table. Its worst overall category is sustainable agriculture – which includes the impact of food and farming on water, land and air – where the UK ranks 24th out of 28. However, it scores poorly relative to the other 27 EU members on a significant number of more specific indicators including the prevalence of over-nourishment (24th); number of people per fast food restaurant (27th); greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture (26th); diversification of agricultural system (joint 18th); participation rate of youth in UK farming (25th); and working conditions in food and farming (18th).

The message from experts is that incoherent government policies are to blame. “It’s not good enough to simply lump together separate plans and bills and to call that a strategy,” says Dan Crossley, the executive director of the Food Ethics Council. “We need a strategy that genuinely joins the dots, with good food and farming contributing to public health, environmental concerns being tackled hand in hand with animal welfare concerns, and resources being shared fairly so that everyone can access good food.”  

Compared with much of the past decade, 2018 has been a year characterised by some unusually radical policy proposals in areas such as farming and waste, largely emanating from Michael Gove’s DEFRA, yet the FSI suggests that bold rhetoric and punchy proposals are not yet translating into effective policy.

Crossley believes that the FSI “gives a good sense of how countries are doing” relative to key food sustainability indicators, although he thinks certain metrics such as those on farm animal welfare could be strengthened and given greater weight. He notes that there is a time lag for new policy ideas to be adopted and then reflected in performance indicators. And he hopes that, if delivered effectively, new government measures will translate into significant improvement in the UK’s standing in the FSI in a year or two.

One apparently concrete action is for the restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, who as education secretary Gove commissioned to co-authored the School Food Plan, to work across government departments to produce a new, holistic food strategy. Crossley welcomes the move but says there is a risk it ends up being “a collection of existing bills and plans” that in reality don’t reinforce one another.

He says businesses can play their part in improving the UK’s ranking by having integrated sustainability approaches themselves and by lobbying government for a joined-up food strategy that rewards companies that are trying to provide healthy products with a lower impact on the planet.

Yet calls for coherent food policies are nothing new, and the reality is that businesses may be forced to forge a lone path all the while Brexit envelops the entire UK policy landscape.

If, as some predict, a hard Brexit results in a race to the bottom on food standards, there seems every reason to fear the UK will cement its position among the laggards of the food sustainability world for some years to come.

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