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Creating a sustainable food system needs a different approach  

Angus Chalmers

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Hi, I’m Angus Chalmers, the founder and Managing Director of RDP, a marketing company specialising in agribusiness and animal health. In this month’s instalment of The Inside Track, I’ll be discussing the fundamental issues that need to be addressed to create a sustainable food system that’s fit-for-purpose and the challenges that come with that, for agriculture, food producers, and retailers alike.  

When we think about sustainability, regenerative agriculture, and getting to net zero, everyone talks about the food system in the UK being ‘broken’ and having to fundamentally change. There needs to be a much broader understanding of the challenges required to make this happen.  

Challenges for retailers and others in the food supply chain  

There are many challenges for retailers and others in the food system supply chain when it comes to making sustainable food production a reality.  

Supermarkets are importing foods and cut flowers out of season just because people are used to these things being on the shelves. Supply chains have developed that – delivering into a system in the UK where precious few understand seasonality any longer. Many of these crops are coming from places where water and other resources are also scarce.  

There are some huge challenges, from a scope 3 perspective (Greenhouse gas emissions from a companies input and output supply chain), for food retailers and those who import raw materials and finished goods from all over the world.  

The need for collaboration across the food system  

Recently, I’ve attended both The Times Earth Summit and a number of European Food Navigator webinars, addressing sustainability. What struck me was that despite there being global businesses present from finance to food brands and NGOs to government representatives, nobody was talking about the fundamental production of food and raw materials at farm level.  

That really surprised me because so many activities happen at farm level, not just the production of food, but also the ability to sequester carbon, to enhance biodiversity and protect air and water. Agriculture and land holds many of the solutions to these issues, yet there was little or no engagement in this area.  

Everyone appears to be focused on making a difference within their own businesses, with what appears to be little cross supply-chain collaboration. There needs to be a realisation that each element of the supply chain is reliant upon the next and a collective responsibility for the performance across the entire chain. This needs to include a recognition of where value sits as well as outcomes.   

I noticed the same thing when I visited one of the UK’s well-known research sites. The research project is looking at regenerative farming, natural capital, environmental schemes, and how they can influence the production of high quality food in a nature friendly way.  

Around the table, there were significant players in the Ag sector, as well as across the food supply chain. We had an informative day looking at the latest research and how specific practices could have an impact on sustainable food production.  

But once we regrouped and began exploring  where we go from here, there was a distinct reluctance to express opinions. It was clear that these companies were just not used to collaborating and debating on such fundamental issues outside their own organisations. I always have a perception that some businesses feel they are more than capable of solving whatever issue is presented, given their scale and influence.  

The bigger things at stake  

However, that needs to change. There’s a bigger picture at stake, and fundamental change in the food system requires collaboration beyond vested interests.   

This is not about commerciality, competition, or having to ‘give away the family jewels.’ It’s about collaborating to arrive at an end point where everyone is going to benefit. I realise that this is not going to be easy for commercial businesses who are used to looking at things from the perspective of their short, medium, and long-term goals. Achieving a sustainable food system is definitely going to be a long-term undertaking.  

Taking a long-term view amid a cost-of-living crisis, wars, and some complex geopolitics certainly is challenging; but agriculture and land use in general presents a huge opportunity to help address many of the issues of climate change, biodiversity, air and water quality whilst delivering food sustainably.  That is going to require real changes in business and in consumer habits.  

The challenge for farming  

Farming covers over 70% of the UK’s landmass so occupies a unique position as a catalyst for change. But farmers can’t drive change through businesses further up the food chain telling them what to change, but not delivering any additional value.  

The big challenge therefore for farming is how do farmers retain their share of the value of this fundamental change, a reward for risk and doing the right thing. They have the potential to  deliver so much, but they are busy people, spinning many plates. Supply chains need to understand the risks that farmers take when they make changes to their production systems and be prepared to engage with those risks. Production systems are often 12 months or more long. It’s not possible to make a change in the morning so things are different in the afternoon. There needs to be an understanding of this from the wider supply chain and a willingness to collaborate and accept that the Ag sector, food producers, retailers, and others in the food system need each other if we are ever going to be able to produce food in a sustainable way.  

The need for a different approach 

Of course, this is easy to say and incredibly difficult to do. It requires a different approach. I believe there is an opportunity to collaborate more closely, to harness the innovation and technology that is coming through, and for these big companies to play their part in that.  

We are always trying to drive productivity, but what if we had better outcomes for the resources we are using and consuming?  

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