How is the UK performing on food sustainability? Not great, according to the latest Food Sustainability Index (FSI).
The FSI offers a global snapshot of how different countries are performing on various indicators such as sustainable agriculture, food loss and waste, and nutritional challenges. It may surprise you to discover that the UK ranks just 24th out of 67 countries – if you were to narrow that down to the 28 EU member states, the UK sits at the lower end of the table.
It’s a disappointing state of affairs, and one acknowledged by the Food Ethics Council (FEC) in its call for a “bold and integrated food strategy” to address the range of human health, nutrition, environmental, animal welfare and social justice concerns relevant to British food and farming.
As the FEC points out, there are big questions over the future of trade relating to food — from the potential risk of chlorinated chicken imports to what the opportunities might be for UK food exporters. These issues are being intensified by Brexit, ongoing food scares, not to mention consumer concerns over the safety and integrity of what they eat.
But what kind of coherence is required when it comes to the future of our food? Well, the prospect of a National Food Strategy, promised by the Government some time this year, could offer an excellent starting point – and some much-needed leadership on the issue.
Implementation will be far harder, but one sustainability approach that could deliver here is the circular economy. In theory if the food industry were to adopt circular principles, food could be grown, manufactured and distributed in a way that not only regenerates natural resources, but eliminates waste and minimises harmful practices.
Check out Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s latest report. It warns that by 2050, five million people could die each year around the world due to industrial food production factors – that’s twice the current number of people killed by obesity. “Air pollution, water contamination, pesticide exposure, and excessive use of antibiotics and fertilisers are making healthy eating impossible for people around the world,” the study notes.
It’s obvious a step change is needed. But what potential is there for food companies to take circular thinking one step further – beyond resource efficiency, into the realm of food ethics?
Well, that’s what my latest research project with Veris Strategies is intending to explore. We are examining how circular economy models might be able to help address issues around food ethics – not just animal welfare, but food diversity, livestock emissions, labour standards, food provenance and supply chain traceability. We hope to find some answers.
We’ve already done some in-depth consumer research on the issue of food ethics, assessing public attitudes nationwide, and are now canvassing expert opinion in the form of a short survey. The findings will be published this Spring, and made publicly available.
If you have knowledge of the circular economy, and are passionate about food – especially creating more sustainable and ethical food systems – please take a few minutes to complete our survey HERE. Thank you.
The debate on single use plastics continues to rage hard as the world tries to figure out what we can replace them with. Biodegradable plastics? Compostable plastics? Paper? Metal? With each new material contender comes a nifty set of trade-offs – no recovery infrastructure, too carbon-intensive, less recyclable, too costly … the list goes on.
Of course, in our quest for convenience, we have created these unintended consequences and given ourselves one hell of a headache. Convenience is the key word here. We want it, we pursue it, we live our lives by it. Convenience – that’s the root we really need to tug at if we’re going to solve this problem.
I find the argument that less plastic packaging creates more food waste a fascinating one. We’re told we need this plastic to preserve chilled edibles for longer. As if fridges are now no longer enough.
Take a shrinkwrapped cucumber – that’s a prime example. I hate shrinkwrapped cucumbers. Cucumbers have their own packaging, it’s called cucumber skin. They reckon a cucumber resting in its own skin will lose 3.5% of its weight after just three days whereas a shrink-wrapped one loses 1.5% of its weight over two weeks.
The rationale goes that shrinkwrap keeps cucumbers fresher for longer. But … what if we actually ate that cucumber within three days? That’s a pretty radical idea, uh? What if we planned our meals each day, purchased only what we needed to eat, and ate it?
It wasn’t that long ago that most people did this. Growing up, I can remember my grandmother doing it. She loved food, loved feeding anyone who walked through her door, she cooked up daily feasts and there was never any waste (she grew her own cucumbers, by the way).
Now, this seems an impossible dream for many because we’ve created such constraints on our time and energy. The whole consumer experience is supposed to seamlessly integrate with our growing demands for hyper-convenience. And single use plastics were great – they really helped us out here – until we realised we were choking the life out of oceans with them.
I can’t see us wanting to sacrifice our new levels of portability for the benefit of the planet. Which is a shame. I’d personally like the world to slow down a bit. For us to consume less, or only what we need.
Instead, we’ll look to technology for the answers. We might manage to get the circular economy to work for those disposable resources deemed most problematic. And the trade-offs will continue, because they always do.
When holidaying recently in Lanzarote, I was very conscious of the number of colourful plastic straws served with my all-inclusive cocktails. To be fair, I found it more ironic than disturbing, considering that the hotel I was staying at prides itself on its green credentials.
In fact, the whole island does – step inside the terminal at Arrecife airport and you’ll be greeted with artwork displays promoting the detrimental effects of ocean plastics and the impact of water scarcity given the dry climate in the region.
Do all-inclusive cocktails need to be decorated with colourful plastic straws? Given that the cocktails are somewhat watered down, some might argue they work well as a distraction. But I honestly felt quite guilty drinking out of them. And I put this entirely down to the Blue Planet effect.
Plastic straws are on the ‘most unwanted’ list of single use undesirables right now. The UK Government is proposing to ban them, food and drink operators like McDonalds and Wetherspoons have pledged to phase them out, and various petitions are in circulation pressurising supermarkets to do the same.
Of course, straws are just the tip of the iceberg. You can’t just consider certain plastics in isolation; you also have to take into account where exemptions might apply. Plastic straws serve a medical purpose, they are also deemed vital drinking aids for many disabled people. And while cutting down on unnecessary use can only be a good thing, I do wonder if alternatives will just create their own complexities – those unintended consequences we often find difficult to foresee.
For me, one of the core problems that needs addressed here is how to prevent leakage of such materials out of our production and consumption systems. If we had better capture mechanisms for single use plastics, underpinned with investment in high value recycling and reprocessing – and crucially, market demand for these reprocessed plastics, it could be a game changer.
I’m currently working with a client on an engagement project that touches on these issues, particularly perceptions around plastics use and reduction. It will be fascinating to see how the outcome of this project can inform debate going forward.
For what it’s worth, I think carbon impacts need to be factored into any discussion around plastics. I’m not seeing much evidence of lifecycle thinking when it comes to plastics coverage right now. I’m happy to ditch the colourful straws in my Pina Colada, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, hey?
I’ve recently completed a client project which involved researching and writing an in-depth business guide on science-based targets (SBTs). SBTs are the new carbon kid in town, they offer an accountability mechanism for companies to demonstrate tangible, more meaningful leadership on carbon reduction.
SBTs are not just any old relative carbon targets plucked from the sky, they are aligned with climate science and demand super aggressive cuts in emissions. I’ll not say too much more about how they work as the targets are quite complex, but you can read more about them here.
What’s fascinating is how fast SBTs are being adopted by global corporations. Since they were launched in 2015 through the Science Based Targets Initiative, more than 320 companies have signed up to commit to them.
Because these targets are so demanding, and long-term in nature – companies are encouraged to set SBTs up to 2050 – there’s no guarantee that they will actually be met. But what they will do is encourage more divestment from fossil fuels; you can’t simply meet a SBT through being more energy-efficient, you have to invest in renewables.
The effect of SBTs won’t just be confined to the companies who commit to them either. Part of setting a SBT involves looking at your supply chain (Scope 3 emissions). So if a company’s Scope 3 emissions account for more than 40% of its total emissions, then a Scope 3 target must also be set – although this doesn’t have to be science-based.
This suddenly brings a lot more entities into the mix. SBTs are likely to filter down into the supply chain over time, meaning that suppliers – often smaller companies – will likely face increasing demand for carbon reporting and disclosure from the customers they serve.
Greater scrutiny on embodied emissions in purchase agreements for goods and services may be applied, for instance. If a supplier operates a particularly carbon-intensive site, they may come under pressure to address that. Emissions that occur downstream in a supply chain from activities like waste management can also fall under Scope 3 emissions, meaning that specialist service sectors could also start to feel the heat.
Given these potential scenarios, I am surprised that there is still a real lack of awareness around SBTs. Most business leaders I talk to, unless their company has set a SBT or is thinking of doing so, remain blissfully ignorant of what these targets are, or what implications they carry for wider industry.
In the coming years, decarbonisation will be one of the biggest (if not the biggest) drivers for business. And SBTs provide a crucial framework to deliver on that. The largest corporations in the world have already committed to them. That should be reason enough to get them on your radar.
“Nobody is going to die from litter, it’s not a priority.”
Attitudes like this are prevalent within local government, unfortunately. Just ask anti-litter campaign group Leithers Don’t Litter who have been on a mission to clean up the streets of Edinburgh since 2015.
One of the group’s founders Zsuzsa Farrell gave a talk at the Scottish Resources Conference last week. And she spoke of a grim reality. A reality in which basic environmental health mandates are all engaged in a race to the bottom for funding as council budgets are cut to the bone. Money’s tight – and the simple fact is litter and dog fouling just can’t compete against social care, education or housing.
Any attempt at litter enforcement just doesn’t work anymore, because there is no enforcement. I see it on the streets of Dundee where I live pretty much every day – canines happily defecating under signs warning of ‘on the spot’ penalty fines for dog fouling. Interestingly, Dundee City Council has just launched a Take pride in your city campaign. Apparently they’re going to get tough on all this stuff – but where have we heard this before?
There is always talk of the need for more education … for better enforcement … and because neither is working, there’s now talk of incentives. Enter the trusted concept of deposit returns to tackle litter (or at least discarded plastic bottles). See, it works so well in places like Germany, so surely we can make it work here in the UK? Well, we will soon find out in Scotland.
But perhaps we are beating the wrong drum. Maybe more effort should be focused on how we can make litter socially unacceptable – we’ve had great success here with smoking and drink driving. Imagine what we could do with chewing gum and dog poo if some creative public campaign marketeers were recruited to the cause.
Carole Noble from Keep Scotland Beautiful also spoke at the conference. She made the great point that we need to change how we talk about litter. It needs to be framed as an economic rather than an environmental problem. Litter tends to blight low-income neighbourhoods and because of this, it can rapidly escalate into a social justice issue – its presence can attract crime, drug use, even prostitution.
lIt's like so many green themes. Once you work out how to humanise them, they become far more engaging and relevant. I think there's so much scope here to link litter to themes that really matter to people. Check out Crapitalism from the imaginative crew at Leithers Don't Litter - it's an excellent starting point.