The environment, competition policy and economic growth

March 25th 2015

Duncan Williamson

Duncan Williamson

LiveWell for LIFE has identified eight policy recommendations which we believe can greatly support the adoption of healthy, sustainable diets. These were presented at ‘On our plate today: healthy and sustainable food choices’ which took place in Brussels 11 December.

In this blog, Duncan Williamson – Food Policy Manager, WWF-UK talks about the topic of recommendation number five: competition policy should not eclipse sustainability objectives.

One of the core ideas underpinning the concept of sustainable food is that competition policy and economic growth should not eclipse environmental sustainability. This is the fifth recommendation in our final report: competition policy should not eclipse sustainability objectives.

I think this fits in nicely with challenging the myth that sustainable diets and healthy food cost more. This misunderstanding is driven partially by EC and member state policies that do not always add up. It’s exacerbated by the siloed nature of all the different food actors. This makes understanding the true cost of our food hard to measure.

Tax payers pay twice                                                         

The EC already has a huge influence on what we eat and how much it costs us. This covers procurement, tax breaks, CAP and CFP.  Unfortunately the current system seems to be about maintaining the status quo. Billions of hard working taxpayer’s money goes into subsidising foods such as sugar due to EC CAP policy.

Key recommendation number 5

Key recommendation number 5

At the same time, further billions of tax payer’s money goes into treating the consequences of diet related ill health. The health costs are found through quantifying the direct costs of treatment for obesity, diabetes and other diet related illnesses and the indirect costs such as lower productivity, sick days and lower attainment. This results in tax payers paying an avoidable expense twice!

This situation impacts on competition policy. How can it not? Due to the amounts of money used it influences economic growth.

Some stakeholders have a lot committed to the current system. A change to a new one will impact on their economic growth, though it will benefit others.

Competition policy a red herring

As it stands, every member state is responsible for giving advice to its citizens in the form of dietary recommendations, whilst the EC defines the framework – most food and agricultural policies are devised at European level.

But, as malnutrition and dietary environmental footprint have a European dimension, better cooperation between the EC and member states is vital.

EU decision makers need to step up and take action. Suggestions include a coherent integrated policy framework, a common EU Sustainable Food Policy, sharing best practice and target setting. There’s a host of opportunities to move to a more sustainable food system. However this seems difficult to action.

One of the barriers is the idea that competition policy and economic growth counter environmental sustainability and should be given greater priority. There’s an unfounded belief that environmental sustainability will cost more, hinder economic growth or is against current competition policy. Of course this is simply not true.

In the past we’ve seen competition policy used to trump environmental concerns or as an excuse for inaction. An example is when people advocate for stronger procurement regulations.  In these situations it has proved challenging to make significant changes beyond those based on price. Stronger standards that ensure hospitals, schools, care homes and so one provide healthy sustainable foods are a key way to move to a sustainable food system. However governments claim this is against EC competition regulations.

Another example is the Swedish National Food Agency report Towards Environmentally Sound Dietary Guidelines published in 2008. This report aimed to found the Swedish food based dietary guidelines on environmental priorities and was developed closely with the Swedish Environment Protection Agency. As the report had EU relevance, it was sent to the EC for notification in 2009. But the Commission looked at this unfavourably as it included various recommendations to increase the consumption of Swedish food products – such as fruits, root vegetables, animal products and oils. This was thought to conflict with the EU’s Single Market Act and would unfairly favour Swedish farmers. This feedback resulted in a serious delay in the Swedish policy developments.

Environment sustainability results in more winners than losers

The EC already influences and defines competition policy; its own mechanisms shape economic growth. To date these have not included environmental concerns which have been seen as externalities that hinder the others. The LiveWell for LIFE project, and others, have demonstrated that in fact this is not so.

Environmental sustainability should be a core factor in future policy direction. Yes this will impact on some sectors. However for others it will drive growth, create opportunities – economic and social. It will also enable the EC to move to a more resilient, adaptable food system, one that works to protect and enhance people’s health and the natural world.

Duncan Williamson

Food Policy Manager – WWF-UK

Read Duncan’s other blogs

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