The government must step into a policy vacuum surrounding the creation of a sustainable food system, says the outgoing Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) in one of its final reports.1
The need to feed a growing global population while responding to climate change and protecting biodiversity has been placed firmly on the political agenda by the recent Foresight report on food and farming to 2050 (ENDS Report 433, pp 28-29).
The publication of Food 2030, the government’s first UK food strategy for decades, was also welcomed in January last year as a positive basis for action (ENDS Report 420, pp 40-42). It was to have been followed by more detailed goals and timelines, but the election intervened.
Now, says the SDC, the policy process seems to have entered “suspended animation”.
It wants this to change. “This is not the time for governments to step back and abdicate their responsibility. Effective government leadership is essential. Markets alone cannot deliver.”
The SDC is critical of the coalition’s “insubstantial” plans on food and says it should take “full ownership” of Food 2030. Once it has taken on the strategy the government should draw up and publish a delivery plan, by September this year.
It welcomes the forthcoming government buying standards for food procurement but says these should be mandatory across the public sector, not just within central government departments.
A new cross-government Cabinet subcommittee should meet twice yearly to monitor progress and work should be coordinated with the devolved administrations.
The report again highlights the environmental impacts of high meat and dairy consumption, an area which successive governments have considered sensitive.
But it notes that sustainable consumption, once a priority for the environment department (DEFRA), is not mentioned in its current business plan for this parliamentary session (ENDS Report 426, pp 5-6).
The government should be wary of relying on ‘soft’ measures to drive behaviour change, it says. The idea of using behavioural ‘nudges’ and labelling to encourage pro-environmental choices will not be enough (ENDS Report 434, pp 46-50).
The full range of policy levers, including taxes and regulation, should be considered, SDC says. Last year the government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change backed the idea of a tax to cut diet-related carbon emissions (ENDS Report 431, p 27).
The government appears already to have largely rejected the SDC’s report. A DEFRA spokesman said many recommendations related to projects that were already in progress and others “are no longer appropriate”.
Asked in parliament if DEFRA would produce a new strategy as suggested by SDC, farms minister Jim Paice said the Foresight report on the future of food and farming has provided a roadmap towards a sustainable food industry.
And environment secretary Caroline Spelman, quoted in the Guardian, said food strategy “has not been at the top of my agenda”.
“DEFRA should decide whether, and if so how, it intends to implement the previous government’s Food 2030 strategy,” says a report of the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published on 15 April.2
The Commons Environmental Audit Committee is also holding an inquiry on sustainable food consumption and production (ENDS Report 434, p 68).