We need to rethink our food system to stand a chance of ending hunger in the UK

As the UK prepares to leave the EU, Dr Courtney Scott from the Food Foundation explains why a new agricultural policy will be essential if we want to end hunger and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 in the UK.

Food is the source of life, and thus appropriately central to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Food systems that provide adequate food and nutrition in a sustainable manner are essential for both human and planetary health.

Globally, our agricultural systems are huge contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss, and 88% of countries are grappling with two or three forms of malnutrition, resulting in chronic health outcomes such as stunting and obesity. The causes and outcomes of these food system and health challenges are closely related to other SDG goals. Poverty (SDG1) is a driver of over and undernutrition. Agriculture can place heavy demands on water (SDG6), and is related to climate change (SDG13) and biodiversity loss (SDG15). And a poor diet is closely linked with the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (SDG3).

Food, farming and malnutrition in all its forms in the UK

Our chapter on SDG2 in Measuring up shows that even in the UK, where food is abundant, we are not on track to end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

At the same time that the UK is dealing with a national obesity crisis, there are also increasing levels of household food insecurity. Household food insecurity can range from worrying about where your next meal is coming from, to going an entire day, or multiple days, without eating due to lack of resources. While seemingly unrelated, these two challenges are interrelated through the food system and socioeconomic inequalities.

In the UK, healthy foods consistently cost more than less healthy foods, meaning that households with insecure income or access to resources must rely on those less healthy and less expensive foods. We see this borne out in childhood obesity statistics, where the prevalence is twice as high in the poorest areas of England compared to the richest areas.

The UK has plenty of room for improvement in its efforts to achieve the agricultural targets under SDG2. Stark figures show the loss of biodiversity. Food production in the UK predominantly occurs on large farms, many of whom would struggle to earn a living without farming subsidies. Even with large and highly efficient farming operations, the UK imports nearly half of its food. As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, and contends with a changing climate, the pressures on the agricultural system will increase. The resulting changes in trading arrangements and the value of the pound could potentially affect the affordability of fruit and vegetables, which risks exacerbating food insecurity and unhealthy diets further. Increasing sustainable production of fruit and veg in the UK might help to build a more resilient supply chain with stable prices, and could help progress towards a host of other goals if it was achieved alongside diversification of production methods and increased support for smaller farms.

So, what can be done?

The UK government recently announced Chapter 2 of their Childhood Obesity Strategy with an impressive list of policy proposals and an ambitious target to halve childhood obesity 2030. If the proposed measures, including restrictions on unhealthy food marketing and promotions, make it through the consultation period and are fully implemented they would be hugely important in helping to achieve SDG2.

However, given the challenges facing the UK in terms of obesity, food insecurity, and sustainable food production, urgent action is needed across sectors if we are to achieve the Goal. The food industry, including retailers and food manufacturers, needs to prioritise sustainable and healthy food as central to their business models. This is something we've been addressing through our project on metrics to understand food industry progress on sustainable and healthy diets with the Food Climate Research Network.

As the UK government writes its agriculture policy as part of the process to leave the EU, it would be a massive missed opportunity if it did not aim to improve both agricultural production and consumption of safe, high quality healthy food, particularly among low-income populations.

The time is right. Stakeholders should encourage the government to be brave, follow through with joined up thinking and introduce cross-government policies to help achieve SDG2.  

Dr Courtney Scott, Research and Policy Advisor at the Food Foundation was the lead author on SDG2 in Measuring up: How the UK is performing on the UN Sustainable Development Goals