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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Delivering sustainable food security with a pick axe, a two-way torch and a mirror

26th November 2015

Food products criss-cross around the world every day, carrying with them embedded water, carbon, energy and sweat (figuratively if not literally, in the effort put in by farmers, growers and manufacturers to bring the product to market). What isn’t embedded in our food markets though, is fairness and long-term thinking. Our food systems comprise long and complex interacting supply chains, and many claim that they are now ‘sustainable’. Some food companies are taking steps to reduce the environmental impacts of their product supply chains and to look after the wellbeing of their employees. A few are taking action to address the wellbeing of the communities from which they source. So what’s the problem? In a nutshell, lots of (seemingly) ‘more sustainable’ food supply chains does not a sustainable food system make.

In recent work we did with WWF-UK on the business case for sustainable food security, the overwhelming sense from food business executives we spoke to was that their priority was keeping products on the shelves in the short-term. Understandable? Yes. A holistic approach? Probably not. One route to ensuring supply of products is to ‘buy up’ your supply chain, perhaps even including the land on which key raw materials are sourced. But that can be a piecemeal, short-sighted response.

Most food companies are suffering from tunnel vision – a short-termist and narrow approach – and to some extent you can’t blame them. The enabling conditions are not widely in place to incentivise food companies to act in the long-term interests of the planet and of the communities they interact with, let alone future generations.

Food and groceries markets (of the non market-stall variety) reward self-interest and increasingly reward enlightened self-interest. However, in their current guise, industrialised food systems are responsible for a large proportion of the damage society is doing to the health and wellbeing of humans, our planet and our animals. And lest we forget – the scale of societal and environmental challenge is growing by the day.

We need an operating environment that enables fair, sustainable food and farming systems – including humans – to flourish. What we have is one that is on the whole either constraining opportunities to flourish or, at its worst, quashing any opportunities for it to thrive and grow in the future. We need regulations combined with the right incentives to ensure that food companies genuinely deliver food security for all, for ever, in fair and humane ways that don’t damage the planet.

Many people are hungry for food. At the same time, many people are greedy for power. We need a food system – and a society – where there are fair shares, fair play and where people have a fair say in our future.

So what do we need to make progress? In my view, for starters, we need a pick axe, a two-way torch, some rechargeable torch batteries and a mirror.

The pick axe is to break open the aforementioned tunnel – to get away from narrow, short-term thinking and an out-dated notion of traditional supply chains.

The torch is to shine an ethical spotlight on what lies behind the foods we buy (for those of us who are privileged to afford adequate food) and to get better connected with how and where our foods are made. In doing so, we will put more pressure on food companies as they will have to address the question ‘would my customers still buy my food if they knew where it came from, and could see how it got here?’ head on.  If the answer to that question is ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’, then food companies should act – not wait idly for the market to force action. Radical transparency is already here, and will only grow.

Our ethical torch needs to have special features. We must ensure that its (rechargeable) batteries are always full, that it has a wide beam, and that it shines in both directions. We need two-way transparency – the opportunity for customers in the west to learn more about the injustices that go into the food on their plate and to make different choices accordingly. But also the opportunity for suppliers (including in the global south) to look the other way, to be able to see how their hard-earned sweat is turned into (hopefully) quality, nutritious food that is enjoyed.

Finally, we need a mirror to hold companies and governments to account for their decision-making. Their food choices affect us all, and vice versa.

Suffice it to say that we should not take our food systems for granted. We can’t prosper without good food. And good food can’t prosper without good soil, a good work force, good ingredients and good environmental conditions. Food and grocery markets are amazing. After all, they serve the needs of billions of people every day. However, paradoxically at the same time they are abhorrent – they neglect the needs of hundreds of millions and they mercilessly push others towards unhealthy, unsustainable diets to fill the company coffers.

Food insecurity, climate change, environmental damage and food policies that work against, rather than promote public health – just a few of the challenges our society faces. Only a socially just food system can meet these challenges today and tomorrow.

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