Working with business for a sustainable diet

November 17th 2014

Nick Hughes

Nick Hughes

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

This is the second blog in a series looking at some of our final recommendations. Here, Nick Hughes Food Sustainability Adviser at WWF-UK talks about the topic of recommendation number eight: Ensure food chain accountability.

As someone working in food policy, I often find myself mulling over the question of who is responsible for making our food system more sustainable. Is it the job of governments? Businesses? Consumers? The answer, of course, is all three but it is arguably businesses – working as they do at the coal face of the food chain and interacting directly with consumers – that can have the most immediate, positive impact on the shift to more sustainable diets.

The role of business in making this shift a reality in Europe is the focus of one of eight recommendations identified by the LiveWell for LIFE project. We want industry to be an important partner in encouraging more healthy and sustainable diets. We believe voluntary commitments in areas such as health and the environment should be underpinned by realistic targets and if these are not met, governments need to be ready to step in with regulation.

Taking the UK as a case in point, salt reduction is a great example of how voluntary targets and commitments can deliver a significant change in dietary patterns. In 2006,the Food Standards Agency set salt reduction targets for 85 food categories with the aim of ultimately getting the population average intake of salt down to 6g/day from 9.5g/day. By 2008, average intake of salt had fallen to 8.6%/day and by 2012 it had reduced further to 8.1g/day.

Salt reduction commitments are now part of the Department of Health’s Public Health Responsibility Deal. This pursues a voluntary approach to improving health, asking industry to make pledges around key targets including calorie reduction and nutritional labelling. However, the Responsibility Deal has not been without its critics with some health groups claiming industry has too strong a role in dictating pledges and targets. And, while it’s too early to write the Responsibility Deal off as a failure it’s vital that such initiatives are rigorously monitored and evaluated. And governments must be willing to step in and regulate where businesses have failed to meet their commitments.

Regulation is often characterised as a draconian, anti-business measure. But for companies that have delivered on their pledges – only to see others suffer no penalty for dragging their heels – regulation sets a level playing field. It gives early adopters a competitive advantage over their peers and justifies the investment they have made in hitting their targets.

Many food businesses have gone beyond voluntary government commitments to set their own ambitious targets in areas such as carbon reduction and nutrition. These businesses understand the need for making their supply chains and product lines fit for a new 21st century reality – where issues such as climate change, water scarcity and biodiversity loss mean long-term security of supplies.

For those businesses failing to set their own targets, the clock is ticking. The time to act is now.

Nick Hughes

Food Sustainability Adviser, WWF-UK

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