Globally food and agriculture are responsible for 26% of greenhouse has emissions. In the UK, the figure is slightly lower at 19%, with the bulk of this footprint originating in primary production.
As the industry works to reduce the negative impact food production has on the planet, regulators need to be agile and responsive to this pressing issue, FSA Chair Professor Susan Jebb suggested at the recent Global Conference for Food Safety and Sustainability, organised by the FSA and Food Standards Scotland.
"Food is vital for life. It is important to all of us and affects us every single day. We have done a huge amount as regulators to improve food safety, but I firmly believe that the time is now right for us to look at other risks in the system. The food system itself is contributing significantly to the carbon emissions that threaten our planet. Arguably that is one of the biggest risks we face.
“I’ll admit to being a little disappointed how little of the conversation at COP26 has focused on food, but I hope this meeting adds to the voices of some of the other fringe meetings to really help raise the profile of some of the issues that we face in the food system, and which are going to be so vital to addressing the challenge of climate change,” she told the audience of regulators, food and feed scientists, consumer groups, industry experts and academics.
“We see daily headlines about the catastrophic impact of the food system on the planet but, I’m pleased to say, headlines too of some new innovations that might help us to change course – whether that’s new ranges of plant-based products, edible insects or lab-grown meat.”
So, what is role should regulators play in this bold new world of sustainability-focused food science and technology?
First and foremost, Jebb stressed, the function of the FSA remains to ‘protect consumers’, ensuring that food is both safe and what it claims to be. But the future role the FSA needs to play should also reflect the importance that citizens place on climate action. FSA research this summer revealed more than half of UK adults are looking to make changes to what they eat, and more than two-thirds want the government and industry to do more to enable change in the food system.
Mitigating and minimising food’s footprint
Outlining the changes she believes are necessary to transition to a more sustainable food system, Jebb said we need to waste less and reduce over consumption. “In the context of climate change, we need to look specifically at meat production and consumption,” the FSA Chair suggested.
As the sector seeks solutions that are ‘kinder to the planet’ a ‘culture of innovation’ will be necessary and a supportive regulatory environment will be an important enabler. “As regulators, we need to ask ourselves whether we have the right regulatory systems that continue to protect consumers, but also allow the food industry to develop the solutions we need in a changing world,” Jebb suggested.
Since the UK left the EU, the FSA has been responsible for approving new food and feed products before they go to the UK market.
In this context, Jebb said safety will ‘always be the absolute priority in the risk assessment process’. However, she continued, ‘we could also consider the implications of new products through the lens of environmental sustainability.’
Jebb pointed to the possibility of developing a ‘new regulatory framework’ for gene-edited foods (something the UK government has signalled it is open to post-Brexit), or the development of edible insects and other alternative proteins.
“These are exciting innovations that could make a real contribution, so we want to work with the food industry to explore their potential and to help them through the regulatory process,” she suggested.
The food safety expert also believes that labelling and public procurement are important levers regulators can pull as they support the development of a more sustainable food system.
Eco-labelling of foods, he explained, would enable consumers to compare the environmental footprint of different foods and 'vote with their wallets'.
"More importantly, eco-labelling would be a powerful driver of change in the food industry," May argued, comparing the potential impact of eco-labelling to that of nutritional labels like the UK's traffic lights system. "Experience has already shown that mandatory nutritional labelling has helped incentivise companies to reformulate foods, bringing health benefits that go far beyond individual changes in consumer purchasing. Eco-labelling could achieve the same for environmental credentials and drive rapid improvements in food sustainability.”
Jebb echoed that ‘regulators need to play a part in both assuring the data used to make sustainability claims and in how this information is conveyed to consumers to best aid informed choices'.
‘These are not just potential future risks’
While food regulators need to prepare for the future needs of food system innovators and remain open to the adoption of new technological solutions, Jebb stressed that climate change is also having an impact on food safety and regulation today.
“These are not just potential future risks,” she warned. “Rising temperatures mean food and feed chains are at greater risk from pathogens and other hazards like aflatoxins, the toxic substances caused by fungus. Extreme weather conditions are disrupting harvests and supply chains, increasing the risk of food incidents and food crime. Regulators must be alive to a complex set of risks and hazards that climate change could bring.”
These risks and hazards in the food chain require an effective and agile response from food safety regulators, Jebb argued.
International cooperation in the face of these threats is ‘absolutely vital’, with organisations like INFOSAN and Codex playing a crucial role in keeping the global food system safe.
“Regulators also need to be agile in the way we enforce our regulations. We saw this during the COVID-19 pandemic. We needed to respond quickly to a rapidly developing situation, to change policies and adapt regulatory requirements to support the food industry in maintaining a safe supply of food at this time of crisis,” Jebb said.
“This type of flexibility will be essential as we support the food industry in responding to adverse effects of a changing climate.”