Sustainability warning as UK food shortage continues

UK retailers have been urged to look to the sustainability of the food they are selling.

A new report from sustainable food organisation, Eating Better, found that there is little evidence that food retailers are driving more sustainable sourcing.

While many retailers have committed to improve their sourcing, from reducing carbon emissions to improving biodiversity, there is little transparency on what they’re doing to achieve it.

The report, ‘Sourcing Better Checked Out’, reviews the publicly available policies of 10 major retailers against 12 outcomes set out in our ‘Sourcing Better’ framework. The review found no evidence that they are working beyond addressing single issues.

“There is no evidence of policies on key areas from maintaining soil health, effective policies to reduce local pollution potential from farming, to support local biodiversity in farming landscapes or minimise impact on water scarcity,” it added. “Transparency is poor, progress across the different impact areas is uneven and there are no commitments to reduce the amount of farmed animals or meat and dairy sold as part of efforts to lower emissions. The Eating Better alliance is asking retailers to develop a plan to address each issue area and publish progress against targets.”

Simon Billing, executive director of Eating Better alliance explained: “With all of the forces driving up food prices – from extreme weather events to war and disease outbreaks – creating a sustainable and resilient food system has never been more pressing. Sourcing Better means taking a holistic approach to ensure that the meat and dairy sold by retailers is produced in a way that delivers for nature, animals and the climate, and is profitable for farmers. They must make it easier for people to eat healthier, more sustainable diets.”

Anna Taylor, executive director at the Food Foundation warned the UK’s ambitions on tackling climate change are doomed unless the approach to food is changed.

“More sustainable production methods and changing what we eat will be key for tackling climate change. There’s no chance of the UK getting to Net Zero without changing our food system. So it’s disappointing to see that there’s still such a long way to go when it comes to producing better. Greater transparency and more ambitious target setting ought to be a priority for retailers given the influence they have on supply chains and our diets.”

The report was published amid new warnings over the ongoing food crisis in the UK.

Oliver Chapman, CEO of supply chain specialists, OCI warned the situation could get worse before it gets better.

“The UK’s shortage of tomato, cucumber and peppers could spiral into something even more serious,” he said. “The causes are multiple, but it’s important to understand there are both short-term direct causes and underlying problems which magnify the impact of these direct effects.

“In fact, you can liken the challenges to peeling an onion. A vegetable which is not in short supply!

“At the outer layer, you have weather conditions in certain regions such as southern Spain, labour shortages in the UK and quite possibly a Brexit effect.

“Peel off that layer, and there is the policy of fixed pricing and small margins accruing to farmers. As Henry Dimbleby, advisor to the government on food strategy in England, said, a ‘weird supermarket culture’ involving fixed pricing is a partial explanation. And, as a survey from Sustain found, UK farmers often only make a one per cent profit from the food they produce.

“But peel off that level, and the onion’s core reveals an approach to managing the supply chain which puts insufficient emphasis on robustness and resilience.

“It is vital that food retailers not only thoroughly audit their supply chain but take a holistic view and apply more robust risk assessment. Food supply must always be 100 per cent secure.

“A shortage of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers is one thing, but insufficient resilience of the food supply chain could lead to wider food shortages, which would be disastrous.

“In short, the food supply chain needs more care, or food shortages will become an ever more common problem.”