The UK’s food system - a tale of two halves

Our 2018 landmark report, Measuring up, showed that the UK was only performing well on 24% of the Sustainable Development Goal targets. As we work with our partners to accelerate progress on the Goals, UKSSD Network Director Emily Auckland explains why we’ve chosen to start with the UK’s broken food system.

The UK’s performance against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a lot worse than people realise. People and places are being left behind through a combination of socio-economic inequalities, stagnating productivity levels, the changing industrial landscape and, in some cases, as a result of entrenched forms of discrimination. Additionally, massive harm to our country’s environment (not to mention the whole planet) is the result of high-consumption lifestyles; we buy too much, consume things that are bad for us, throw the rest away and our production processes are no longer fit for the world we live in. 

Things are bad: this was one of the saddest revelations of Measuring up, our landmark assessment of how the UK is performing on the SDGs. Every day the story gets worse as we hear of the damage we’re inflicting on nature and our climate, and people suffer as a result.

Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to our food system. 

While the food system is not neat or tidy, we can summarise it in two ways:

1. Too many people can’t afford to eat enough or access a healthy and nutritious diet

Food insecurity, more commonly known as food poverty, is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation as “a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food”. In a one-off Food Standards Agency survey in 2016, a shocking 26% of people reported experiencing food insecurity in the UK.

For households on a low income, accessing a healthy diet can be hard because healthy foods consistently cost more than less healthy foods. At the same time, we have growing rates of obesity, particularly among children. These issues are not separate - some of the highest obesity rates are often co-located alongside higher rates of food insecurity. The socio-economic inequalities in our society are directly linked to nutrition and obesity rates.

2. Our food system is hurting the planet, so we need to change the way we produce and consume food

Plastic pollution and climate change are zeitgeist, particularly when related to the production and consumption of food. It seems like every day there’s a new report, tv programme, influencer or political candidate telling us of the damaging impact the production of food is having on our planet.

In short, industrialisation and the high demand for food has led to production on a scale that is not sustainable. And while approximately half our food supply chain is global, and many of the environmental impacts are too, we also need to be concerned about the impact this is having on the environment at home. The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and the loss of habitats, degradation of our soils, pollution of our water and the intensity of our food production system is hugely worrying.

The farming community is often ostracised in this discussion but working collaboratively with them is critical if we’re to find a solution. We need to recognise that as a society, we’ve adapted to food being available at low cost, enabled by farm subsidies, and accessible in abundance, regardless of where or how it was made.

The Sustainable Development Goals help us move forward 

The current situation is not fair, nor is it sustainable. The SDGs lay down a challenge to us all about the scale of change that is needed. But they also provide us with a vision to work towards.  

This month we launch UKSSD’s Food System programme. A chance for organisations to work together to develop a roadmap for food in the UK. We’ll be using the SDGs as a lens to consider the challenges, impacts and opportunities organisations have across the value chain, so together we can build a shared path towards a fairer and more sustainable food system.