What makes a food system successful? Historically, the criteria have been high output, low prices, and eradication of deficiency diseases. This understanding is outdated and needs redefining.
A successful food system is one that delivers high wellbeing, social justice and environmental stewardship. This report identifies eight indicators, illustrating that such a food system will:
Based on these criteria, the UK food system is failing:
Including adverse environmental impacts, the cost of obesity and subsidies paid through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), we have estimated the total external cost of the UK food system to be between £11 billion and £26 billion. This means that our effective food bill is at least 12 – 28% greater than the price we pay at the till. The UK food system is failing, and with serious environmental, economic and social consequences.
To contrast with this picture, we sought examples from across Europe of where food systems are achieving the kind of success we have defined. There were many lessons to be learned from them.
With clear examples of where success has been possible, how have we become stuck in this food system that doesn’t work for either us or for the planet? Much of the answer lies in the wider socioeconomic system – persistent and growing inequality, grinding poverty, and enduring unemployment forces many to compromise on the quality and healthfulness of what they eat, propping up companies that provide these products.
The distribution of working hours – with most people either overworked or underemployed – forces households to seek time-efficiencies, opting for fast food and ready meals. The public policy fixation on economic outcomes, particularly GDP growth, crowds out alternative understandings of what matters for good lives. The non-monetary outcomes of systems, especially natural systems such as food and agriculture, are not used to the greatest advantage.
The dominant paradigm in which success is understood is outdated and flawed. Our food system is defective, because the way we understand it is defective. We need to address this so that we can manage our food system to support the greatest contribution to human wellbeing, in a way that is socially just and sustainable over time.
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