A new report by the Food Ethics Council – Food: All things considered – assesses the transformational changes needed to build fair and healthy food systems. It “provides a robust challenge to ‘business as usual’” said Justin King, former CEO of Sainsbury’s speaking about the changing face of food retail at the Council’s 50th Business Forum.
I’ve been a member of the Council since 2000 and we’ve been running these business forums since June 2007. I’ve chaired a few over the years, most recently the 49th on advertising.
The new report analyses the trends and tensions that have emerged over our 50 Business Forum meetings, and draws out the key levers that will drive transformational change. Liz Barling, our head of communications, summed up the three key changes as:
A radical shake up of how the market operates
Businesses in the UK and around the world operate in a global economy predicated on the growth model of increasing GDP above all other goals. As costs and other constraints of producing food become more volatile; and as the market responds to climate change, escalating resource costs and population growth, is the growth model still fit for purpose? We believe that trying to tackle rising food costs in reaction to market signals will create a suboptimal response. Rather, it is better to be bold and start looking now at the transformative policy options of changing consumption patterns, reducing meat consumption, eliminating waste and paying the true price for food.
Adoption of completely new business models
Some business leaders understand the risks to their organisations from unsustainable food systems and want to transition to sustainable business models. Such models might look similar to today’s but their values and success indicators will be radically different. They might seek to deliver positive nutrition; adopt an economics of ‘enough’ approach; or build thriving long term relationships with stakeholders. Whatever they look like, the only certainty is that the prevailing model will change.
Strengthening of government commitment to long term food policy
Government support and encouragement is the ‘magic glue’ which will enable changes in the way the market operates, and the adoption of new business models. Government policy is almost always framed by short term political thinking – just as business policy has traditionally almost always been framed by short term profits. But if business practices are changing, can progressive business leaders persuade government to follow? Just because an issue doesn’t fit within a short term financial or political cycle, it doesn’t mean it should be ignored.
Food: All things considered sets out the case for progressive action from the food and farming sectors. It also highlights how governments and food businesses should be held to account by citizens at the ballot box, in restaurants and in the supermarket aisles.
The powerful players in global food systems – governments, the food industry, the agricultural sector – need to put themselves into the shoes of those the system isn’t serving, and ask the question “what’s the best we can do for everyone, all things considered”. It sounds like an easy question but it isn’t, because for every ‘right’ answer there are likely to be unintended consequences. Any solutions must give greater weight to the voiceless, the powerless and the vulnerable.
Climate change, resource constraint and population growth will create even more unprecedented pressures and difficult trade offs for those working in food and farming. To face these challenges requires transformative changes led by national, regional and international governments.
Transformational change requires transformational thinking. The Food Ethics Council supports business leaders who are squaring up to the inequalities in our food system. It is no easy task, but nothing less will be enough.