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Food industry operations ‘simply incompatible’ with sustainability

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 01-Feb-2013

Some of the food industry’s strategies are incompatible with creating a sustainable food system, says a new report from the Food Ethics Council.

The report, Towards a Sustainable Food System , claims that food prices need to go up to reflect the full social and environmental costs of production, and dependence on cheap food is a major barrier to creating a more sustainable food supply. Industry needs to change the way it operates and government needs to incentivise sustainable business models, the not-for-profit organisation said.

“There are certain features of the way the food industry operates – around marketing and advertising for example – that are simply incompatible with achieving a sustainable food system and which require more assertive government intervention,” the report said.

“Most fundamentally, government must reconsider its faith in an economic model premised on continued economic growth. As this orthodoxy underpins the policy environment within which all businesses, including food businesses, operate, it is a challenge that must be faced, and urgently.”

However, it acknowledged that there are some food and drink companies leading the way in sustainable business practices, while growing profits, and it highlighted Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, Marks and Spencer’s Plan A and Sodexo’s Better Tomorrow Plan, among others.

Profitability first

However, other companies have been more focused on the health of their bottom line during a difficult economic period.

“The crucial characteristics of these leading companies are that they have recognised the long-term necessity of embedding a culture of sustainability within their business models, are trying to integrate sustainability into their core operations, and have made the associated long-term investments,” the report said.

“…For businesses that have yet to make this long-term commitment, however, the immediate pressures of surviving the economic downturn are sometimes sidelining progress on sustainability.”

The organisation said that businesses are increasingly open to the idea that they have a role to play in creating demand for sustainable food. This “represents progress compared to just a few years ago, when this was effectively a ‘no go’ area,” it said.

“And some businesses have made important progress in engaging with people, particularly around environmental issues.”

 Responding to the report, the Food and Drink Federation’s director of sustainability Andrew Kuyk said that improving the sustainability of the food system was a key challenge for everyone involved.

He said: “This report brings out very clearly the issues which need to be addressed, individually and collectively, to make a real and positive difference to safeguarding future access to safe, nutritious and affordable food for all.

“FDF has been happy to contribute to this work and we look forward to playing our part in what needs to be done.”

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