Challenging the UK’s food system to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals offer us an opportunity to challenge a food system in the UK that is unhealthy, unfair and unsustainable. In this blog Robin Hinks from the Food Foundation explains why and how.

Less healthy food products, calorie for calorie, are three times cheaper than healthier food products. This price differential, and a range of other factors, are pushing us towards unhealthy diets; now the biggest risk factor to death and disability in the UK. Not only does this permanently scar the life chances of individuals, it places considerable pressure on public services. Tackling obesity alone could deliver economic benefits worth £17 billion per year including an £800m annual saving to NHS.

These effects are not felt evenly across the country. Many dietary patterns are characterised by socio-economic situation – with higher income levels generally associated with healthier diets. What’s more, UN data suggests that in 2014, 8.4 million people were living in UK households affected by household food insecurity. 

The UK’s food system is also unsustainable for the environment. Recent research indicates that bringing UK diets in line with international dietary recommendations while maintaining a dietary pattern familiar to the UK would reduce UK diet-related Green House Gas emissions by 17%. 

Of course, the UK is not facing unique food system challenges. Malnutrition, including both undernutrition and overweight/obesity, affects more than 1 in 3 people on our planet. It is a global challenge affecting all countries of the world. Indeed, the UK has been at the forefront of raising the importance of good nutrition internationally. The UK’s message has been that preventing malnutrition requires investment in evidence based interventions and cross-government leadership and action. However, this message has not been incorporated into domestic policy processes. 

Even if there was a political will for such domestic food system leadership, the political infrastructure of Westminster/Whitehall could well hinder its development: currently 15 central government departments, and 16 EU directorates-general, have an impact on UK obesity interventions alone. This lack of coherence risks the delivery of the multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relevant for nutrition

The opportunity - Using the SDGs to secure domestic food system change

Like with the implementation of the SDGs, fundamental food system changes cannot be secured solely through voluntary initiative.  A strong commitment from government is needed to stimulate change, and ensure that the positive actions of thought leaders are not penalised by market mechanisms.

However, the responsibility to deliver the SDGs and transform our food system for the public good cannot be the preserve of a sole governmental department or champion. Instead, a Good Food National Action Plan should bring together a wide range of players from DEFRA, the NHS and Public Health England, industry, producers, civil society, schools and early years’ providers and parents groups to ensure a strong coherent implementation team. 

The plan would have to put public health goals at its heart, and its priority must be an Agriculture Bill which purposively supports good, healthy food and the delivery of the SDGs both domestically and internationally. But what else should be contained within this Plan? 

The UK’s leadership in the international development and nutrition community points to the value of prioritising pregnancy and early years as critical intervention moments, which should be targeted by programmes at home as well as internationally.  The first 1000 days of life are the most important for securing life-long good nutrition.  In terms of what this might look like in practice: currently food in pre-school settings is a clear policy gap. This needs immediate prioritisation to ensure that the next generation being born today do not get caught in this vortex of bad diets.

To further determine the contents of a National Action Plan, the UK must also purposefully develop systems that better allow for learning from others (from stakeholders across the UK’s constituent nations, and globally). We need better engagement by the UK government (principally, DFID plus Department of Health and DEFRA) in international action to tackle malnutrition globally, so we are more accountable for our international commitments but also better able to bring lessons from other countries to the UK. 

The SDG targets provide a useful framework through which this international learning could occur.  However, two years into the life of the SDGs, the lack of a government strategy on how we will benchmark and monitor the UK’s performance against the SDG indicators threatens our ability to make use of the SDG framework as a tool for international learning.

We must now rapidly develop a systematic and well-resourced approach to capturing SDG-relevant data.  We must, for example, start measuring Household Food Insecurity as part of a nationally representative survey. With so many families suffering from food insecurity – a problem that will only rise with rising inflation – it is crucial that, like other countries such as the United States, we measure food insecurity so that we assess whether the current and future measures are truly impacting families who are skipping meals and whose diets are truly bad for their health.

At the Food Foundation, we’re trialling out a whole food-system approach to food policy through our Peas Please program. We’re working with actors and groups right across the food system, including government, to create a food environment in which it is easier to consume vegetables. Veg consumption in the UK is a key indicator of the need to improve food policy and diets in this country: around 80% of adults and 95% of children in the UK don’t consume the recommended amount of vegetables, threatening their health. We’re working to remove supply side barriers and drive up demand for vegetables through a commitments framework that will be monitored and evaluated.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Peas Please or want to get in touch please contact the Food Foundation