CSR and Sustainable Food Policy: What Next?

Hard-won gains for sustainability in food production have been lost argues a new report from the Sustainable Development Commission.

The SDC, expert advisors on sustainability to the UK Governments, claim that the Coalition Government has so far ignored an emerging consensus on the issue between industry, NGOs and the previous Labour Government.

CSR gains were won when businesses operating in the food sector, voluntary organisations, farmers and scientists reached agreement on the importance of sustainable food policy. Our current intensive food production system is unsustainable, says the SDC. It leads to biodiversity loss, water stress, and inequalities in diet.

As a result of conscious decisions from businesses, many of which wrote their CSR strategies with specific targets in mind, there have been changes. These include ‘choice-editing’ by food retailers and suppliers with sustainability in mind. In this way, consumers are given only the most sustainable options to choose from.

The SDC report urges Government to look again at how food policy can be developed and delivered in partnership with business, civil society and the scientific community.

Although CSR initiatives by industry play an important part, markets alone cannot deliver. It is the partnership approach that will make the difference. However, in order to make these gains, Government needs to take a leadership role.

This report, entitled Looking back, Looking Forward: Sustainability and UK food policy 2000 – 2011, examines achievements made over the last decade, as well as outlining what the next steps should be.

The SDC acknowledges that businesses in the food sector have begun to wake up to the challenge of sustainable food. The CSR drivers for this were multi-layered. They combined self-interest, with concern for reputational risk, and competition.

In a survey conducted by the SDC for the report, those who responded felt that food retailers’ biggest contribution has been in sustainable and ethical sourcing. The founding of the Marine Stewardship Council by Unilever and its certification scheme for sustainable fish and seafood was highlighted as a positive example.

However, ultimately, even if business has made positive developments, the buck stops with government. It is government that needs to steer the direction of travel. We need to make it easier for people to eat healthily and sustainably and for food producers to shift their ways of working.

Tim Lang, The SDC's Food Commissioner and Professor at the Centre for Food Policy, City University said: "The challenge of feeding growing populations healthily while minimising environmental damage – particularly as food and fuel prices continue to rise – should remind governments that this is not a time to step away from tackling our food system. Obesity and climate change are two huge market failures. Our review of the last decade shows that progress requires the hands-on participation of governments – not a 'leave it to the market' approach."


Photo credit: John Haslam