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The UK's food system is failing - here's what success looks like

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 This understanding is outdated and needs redefining.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:

  1. have a neutral or positive environmental impact;
  2. be productive in its use of energy and other inputs;
  3. be diverse in species and genes;
  4. support good jobs;
  5. be dominated by short and simple supply chains;
  6. be composed of assets that are controlled by a wide and inclusive set of stakeholders;
  7. foster a positive and thriving food culture and the highest levels of public health;
  8. make food affordable to everyone.

Based on these criteria, the UK food system is failing:

  • It is unsustainable: we estimate the total environmental impact of the UK food system to be in the region of £5.7 – 7.2 billion per year, or 6.3 – 7.9% of the market price of food, and probably higher.
  • It is energy-intensive: the UK food system uses roughly eight calories of energy to produce every one calorie of energy from food.
  • It supports bad jobs: the UK food system employs approximately 11% of the UK labour force, but most of them are in the least well-paid jobs, with salaries of less than half the UK average.
  • It is highly complex and opaque: both the decreasing share of total value going to farmers and recent events such as the horsemeat scandal testify to the extreme and increasing complexity of our UK system.
  • It is unequal: all 17 million hectares of agricultural land is owned by about 0.25% of the UK population and the price of an acre of bare land has increased more than threefold from 2004.
  • It is volatile: Britons spend less on food than almost any other EU country, but recent price spikes have hit poor households the hardest.

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.

  • Small-scale infrastructure is critical. Local processing facilities sustain economically healthy communities.
  • Circular, resource efficient systems are possible but require willingness to break with the status quo. Systems with low external inputs of energy and other resources can be remarkably successful but require innovative thinking and in some cases experimentation.
  • Short and integrated supply chains can bring benefits for farmers and local areas. Reducing the gap between consumers and producers supports local enterprise and ensures a strong local system.
  • The social benefits of employment must be recognised. Many producers understand that, while hiring people costs money, creating jobs for certain groups of people has wider social benefits beyond what they get from their employees.
  • Farmers and businesses can drive environmental change. Many farmers make reducing environmental impacts a personal mission, though it’s one that can also be good for their business. Some changes have a clear impact, such as reducing fossil energy use, but others would need to be monitored more closely.
  • Alternative models have already achieved considerable success.Our examples illustrate that environmental and social gains are not mutually exclusive of economic ones.
Food market

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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