EAC publishes findings of sustainable food inquiry

The Government Buying Standards (GBS) for food should include more stringent standards for meat, dairy and eggs, according to report on sustainable food from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

The report, which was published yesterday (13 May), outlined the findings and conclusions of the EAC’s year-long inquiry into the environmental and social consequences of food in the UK.

It recommended that the government should “continue to raise the [GBS] further, to reflect existing best practices in particular for eggs, dairy and meat”, adding that the government should also extend the standards, so that they become mandatory for the wider public sector, including schools, prisons and hospitals.

Other recommendations in the report included an investigation into whether sustainability could be incorporated into food labelling, with factors such as packaging, food miles, type of production and health considered to produce an overall score; new research into the opportunities and risks of using food waste for feed livestock; strong powers for the Grocery Code Adjudicator; and an amendment of the Office of Fair Trading’s remit to take into account sustainable development while protecting competition.

The EAC also questioned the government’s commitment to “sustainable intensification”, warning that the government must define what this term means in practice for the UK, and place the emphasis on sustainability rather than just increasing yields.

It stated that until there was clear public and political acceptance of GM, and proof of its benefit to environment and producers, the government should not license its commercial use in the UK or promote its use overseas.

“The government must ensure that the public and parliament is well-informed on this issue. It should establish an independent body to research, evaluate and report on the potential impacts on the environment of GM crops, and their impacts on farming and on the global food system,” said the report.

The EAC has now called on the government to develop an overarching food strategy which unifies policy areas that impact on food production, supply and demand. Joan Walley MP, chair of the Committee, said: “Our food system is failing. Obesity and diet-related illness is on the increase, fewer young people are being taught how to cook or grow food, and advertisers are targeting kids with junk food ads on the internet.
“At the same time, the world faces growing fears about food security as the global population increases, more people eat meat and dairy, and the climate destabilises as a result of forest destruction and fossil fuel use.
“The government is understandably sceptical about anything that seems like nanny-statism, but the evidence is clear – intervention is needed to tackle obesity and fix our food system. In many cases, reducing environmental impacts and getting people to eat more healthily can be achieved in tandem.”
The EAC report has been welcomed by environmental groups, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which said the government must not ignore the need to develop a joined-up strategy on food. The charity added it would have liked to see the report go further and call on the government to work with Defra and the Department of Health to define exactly what a sustainable diet is.

Mark Driscoll, head of the One Planet food programme at WWF-UK, said: “A food system in which globally 1.5 billion are overweight or obese while another billion people suffer from malnutrition and hunger and at least 30% of all food grown across the globe is wasted, is clearly broken.
“A key step towards fixing the system is defining what a sustainable diet is and integrating sustainability criteria into healthy eating advice. There’s also a need to define what we mean by ‘less but better livestock products’, and to work with farmers, retailers and consumer groups to help us move towards a more sustainable food system that’s fair for all.”