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The business case for sustainable diets

As someone working in food policy, I often find myself mulling over the question of who is responsible for making our food system more sustainable? Is it the job of governments? Businesses? Consumers? The answer, of course, is all three but it is arguably businesses, working as they do at the coal face of the food chain and interacting directly with consumers, who can have the most immediate, positive impact on the shift to more sustainable diets.

The role of business in making this shift a reality in Europe is the focus of one of eight recommendations identified by LiveWell for Life – an EU-funded project which seeks to make the case for a shift to more sustainable diets. LiveWell for Life wants industry to be an important partner in encouraging more healthy and sustainable diets. It believes voluntary commitments in areas such as health and the environment should be underpinned by realistic targets and if these are not met, governments need to be ready to step in with regulation.

Taking the UK as a case in point, salt reduction is a great example of how voluntary targets and commitments can deliver a significant change in dietary patterns. In 2006,the Food Standards Agency set salt reduction targets for 85 food categories with the aim of ultimately getting the population average intake of salt down to 6g/day from 9.5g/day. By 2008, average intake of salt had fallen to 8.6%/day and by 2012 it had reduced further to 8.1g/day.

Salt reduction commitments are now part of the Department of Health’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, which pursues a voluntary approach to improving health, asking industry to make pledges around key targets including calorie reduction and nutritional labelling. However, the Responsibility Deal has not been without its critics with some health groups claiming industry has too strong a role in dictating pledges and targets. And while it’s too early to write the Responsibility Deal off as a failure it is vital that such initiatives are rigorously monitored and evaluated and that governments are willing to step in and regulate where businesses have failed to meet their commitments.

Regulation is often characterised as a draconian, anti-business measure, but for companies that have delivered on their pledges only to see others suffer no penalty for dragging their heels, regulation sets a level playing field giving early adopters a competitive advantage over their peers and justifying the investment they have made in hitting their targets.

Many food businesses have gone beyond voluntary government commitments to set their own ambitious targets in areas such as carbon reduction and nutrition. These businesses understand the need for making their supply chains and product lines fit for a new 21st Century reality where issues such as climate change, water scarcity and biodiversity loss mean long-term security of supplies can no longer be taken for granted.

For those businesses failing to set their own targets, the clock is ticking. The time to act is now.

* A version of this blog first appeared on the LiveWell for Life website

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