Going circular to make ethical eating easier

How is the UK performing on food sustainability? Not great, according to the latest Food Sustainability Index (FSI). 

The FSI offers a global snapshot of how different countries are performing on various indicators such as sustainable agriculture, food loss and waste, and nutritional challenges. It may surprise you to discover that the UK ranks just 24th out of 67 countries – if you were to narrow that down to the 28 EU member states, the UK sits at the lower end of the table.

It’s a disappointing state of affairs, and one acknowledged by the Food Ethics Council (FEC) in its call for a “bold and integrated food strategy” to address the range of human health, nutrition, environmental, animal welfare and social justice concerns relevant to British food and farming. 

As the FEC points out, there are big questions over the future of trade relating to food — from the potential risk of chlorinated chicken imports to what the opportunities might be for UK food exporters. These issues are being intensified by Brexit, ongoing food scares, not to mention consumer concerns over the safety and integrity of what they eat.

But what kind of coherence is required when it comes to the future of our food? Well, the prospect of a National Food Strategy, promised by the Government some time this year, could offer an excellent starting point – and some much-needed leadership on the issue.  

Implementation will be far harder, but one sustainability approach that could deliver here is the circular economy. In theory if the food industry were to adopt circular principles, food could be grown, manufactured and distributed in a way that not only regenerates natural resources, but eliminates waste and minimises harmful practices.

Check out Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s latest report. It warns that by 2050, five million people could die each year around the world due to industrial food production factors – that’s twice the current number of people killed by obesity. “Air pollution, water contamination, pesticide exposure, and excessive use of antibiotics and fertilisers are making healthy eating impossible for people around the world,” the study notes. 

It’s obvious a step change is needed. But what potential is there for food companies to take circular thinking one step further – beyond resource efficiency, into the realm of food ethics?

Well, that’s what my latest research project with Veris Strategies is intending to explore. We are examining how circular economy models might be able to help address issues around food ethics – not just animal welfare, but food diversity, livestock emissions, labour standards, food provenance and supply chain traceability. We hope to find some answers. 

We’ve already done some in-depth consumer research on the issue of food ethics, assessing public attitudes nationwide, and are now canvassing expert opinion in the form of a short survey. The findings will be published this Spring, and made publicly available. 

If you have knowledge of the circular economy, and are passionate about food – especially creating more sustainable and ethical food systems – please take a few minutes to complete our survey HERE. Thank you.

grant o'sullivan