During the past week I’ve attended two conferences, both of which shone a light on current blockages within food policy. Both the Livewell for Life conference in Brussels and the City University Food Policy Symposium in London explored the subject of sustainable diets and aroused intelligent conversation from a broad range of stakeholders with a shared interest in addressing diets as a key driver of sustainability.
The case for sustainable diets is watertight. They are good for health, good for the environment and, as the Livewell for Life project has shown, cost the same or less than current diets in the three pilot countries for which Livewell plates have been developed. Yet I left both conferences with the sense that sustainable diets remain on the periphery of the debate and that we’re far away from the revolution in food policy that the majority of delegates were calling for.
At both events, it felt as though speakers – mainly from academia and civil society - were preaching to the converted and that the voices of governments, political and economic institutions and corporations were largely absent. The exception at the Livewell for Life event was a representative of the European Commission who unconvincingly cited the Food Information Regulation (in essence a minimum standard for displaying nutrition and allergen information) as proof of the Commission’s commitment to a sustainable food system; an observation that is at best misguided and at worst plain disingenuous. In addition, a representative from Danone built her presentation around the premise that real power for shifting to sustainable diets is in the power of consumers rather than businesses.
My takeaway from both events was that the progressive attitudes needed to achieve real food system reform remain the exception rather than the norm.
It was instructive, not to mention ironic, that in the same hotel at the same time as the Livewell event was taking place, a group of civil servants were meeting to discuss criticisms of the TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership that seeks to remove barriers to trade between the EU and the US by harmonising standards and technical regulations between the two trading blocs. The TTIP has significant ramifications for food as many of its provisions relate to food safety, animal husbandry and environmental protection laws and standards.
Why is the TTIP instructive in the context of sustainable diets? Simply because if we’re talking about the need for systemic change in food, the TTIP to my mind risks further entrenching the status quo by increasing private sector power, reducing the sovereignty of nation states and weakening the voice of citizens.
We must, and will, keep banging the drum for a food policy revolution that values natural capital and has sustainability at is core, but the evidence from the past week suggests this is a long way off. My resolution for 2015 is that we start engaging the parts of the policy world we’re currently failing to reach.