Pandemic parks progress on sustainable plates

New research finds grounds for positivity despite foodservice businesses lagging supermarkets on key sustainability indicators. Nick Hughes reports.

The Food Foundation last month published the latest update on its Plating up Progress initiative which tracks how 29 leading UK food businesses – 11 supermarkets and 18 restaurant, catering and wholesale companies – are performing on key health and sustainability indicators. Here are some key takeaways from this year’s update.

The pandemic has put the brakes on foodservice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Food Foundation says anecdotal evidence suggests covid-19 has led to a slowing down of progress within the restaurant and catering sectors with businesses lagging behind supermarkets in making fresh commitments and reporting on them. The two sectors have faced very different experiences during the pandemic with foodservice businesses facing long periods of closure and reduced trade, which in some cases has seen key sustainability personnel placed on furlough, while supermarkets have seen demand soar.

Foodservice particularly lags on health. While supermarkets have upped their game on setting health targets during the past year, foodservice has largely stood still. Five out of 11 supermarkets now have targets for sales of healthy or healthier food compared with a year ago, while Tesco and Sainsbury’s have become the first supermarkets to begin reporting on the percentage of their protein sales that come from plant-based products. By comparison, the Food Foundation found limited change in commitments and performance on sales of healthy and sustainable food in the restaurant, catering and wholesale sectors. Four out of the 18 – Compass, Sodexo, ISS and Greggs – did already have a commitment in place to increase sales of vegetables. “A lot has been done on plant forward or plant-based menus,” the Food Foundation’s Will Nicholson, who leads the Plating up Progress project, tells Footprint. “But what we don't have is a really clear understanding of what that means. What they're not doing is converting that into impact or outcomes.”

It’s been a year of progress on climate. All supermarkets and 13 out of the 18 restaurants, caterers and wholesalers now have either a net-zero climate change target that includes scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions or have started (or committed to start) measuring their scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions. Nicholson says “there are grounds for positivity there in so far as most of them are actually starting to address it”, albeit the report notes few companies have begun reporting on their scope 3 emissions. Nicholson believes mandatory reporting is needed to drive further progress. “There's nothing really to stop decent scope three emissions reporting now. I think it should become mandatory because we know that doing this stuff voluntarily just wastes five years.”

Foodservice businesses are prioritising different things. Contract caterers generally perform well on human rights but less well on water use and biodiversity. Casual dining and restaurant chains, meanwhile, perform less well on human rights but are stronger on climate change. QSRs are lagging behind on healthy and sustainable food sales but there are signs of leadership (from McDonald’s) on sustainable food practices such as sourcing certified seafood. It paints a picture of different businesses in different segments prioritising different issues. The sector as a whole, however, is still playing catch-up with supermarkets. As well as being more advanced on health, supermarkets are also further down the track on biodiversity commitments around commodities such as palm oil, soya and beef.

Nature is nudging ahead of humans. Most companies appear to be considering their impacts on both humans and nature, however slightly more progress has been made on indicators that broadly relate to nature, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, versus those impacts that relate to humans, such as health, livelihoods and food poverty. Still, the Food Foundation is keen to point out that all metrics ultimately have human impacts.

A step-change in reporting is needed. A key recommendation from the report is for greater consistency in reporting and for the government to see mandatory reporting as the starting point. The Food Foundation urges policymakers to adopt recommendations from Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy for England by developing a consistent methodology for reporting on sales of healthy versus unhealthy foods, as well as defining the parameters for reporting on sales of fruit and vegetables and different protein sources, with a shift over time to setting sales-based or procurement-based targets. It also recommends the government facilitates the development of a shared database for relevant food data so that food businesses can access consistent and reliable environmental metrics.

Businesses need to start thinking holistically. Nicholson says that although some businesses are “starting to join the dots, at least conceptually” between different health and sustainability issues “there is still a tendency to think about these issues as very discrete issues that don't interrelate with one another”. By understanding which actions can lead to ‘win win’ scenarios (for example where a reduction in food waste or deforestation leads to reduced greenhouse gas emissions), and others where trade-offs need to be managed (for instance where sourcing a particular product generates fewer emissions but has a worse impact on water use or biodiversity) businesses can better manage the risks of unintended consequences.

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