Ministers must put the environment at the heart of their policy on food by seeking to support local food, minimise food miles and cut pollution, say the government’s green advisers.
But in a submission to the Scottish government’s discussion on food policy this week, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) will warn that there could be “confusion and misunderstanding” if the goal of sustainable food is not properly defined.
The SDC will also call on ministers to do more to help ensure global food security, by reducing the amount of food imported into Scotland. And it will urge all public agencies to source the meals served in their canteens from local producers.
The SDC will unveil its recommendations at a major conference on food policy being organised by Holyrood Communications in Edinburgh this week. It follows the first ever meeting of major retailers to discuss food policy hosted by the Scottish government last week.
The SDC’s job is to provide independent advice to the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and the First Minister, Alex Salmond, on how best to live up to their green credentials. The SDC’s UK chairman is the well-known environmentalist, Sir Jonathan Porritt, and it has a distinct Scottish organisation.
Its new submission on food, ‘The Right Ingredients’, argues that “sustainable development should be the overarching framework for the national food policy”. This means, it says, that food available in shops, restaurants and schools should be safe, nutritious and healthy, and meet the needs of the less well-off.
The policy should also provide a viable livelihood for farmers, respect environmental limits and reduce energy consumption, the SDC says. It should “support rural economies and the diversity of rural culture, in particular through an emphasis on local products that keep food miles to a minimum.”
The SDC’s Scottish director, Maf Smith, pointed out that global food security is at risk from growing population, increasing meat consumption and changing weather patterns. “The Scottish Government must support farmers to produce more food, more sustainably,” he said.
“This will help Scotland to prepare for the challenges ahead, rather than relying on increased food imports. A key to driving innovation in the industry will be increasing the number of agriculture and food science graduates from our universities.”
The Scottish public sector spends £85 million a year on food for its employees and guests, £57 million of which is spent by local authorities. “Currently very few of these contracts stipulate food should be fresh or seasonal,” Smith said.
“The government must make faster progress in this area in order to maximise the benefit to Scotland's health and economy. The good practice of successful pilots, like that in East Ayrshire schools, must be replicated much more widely.”
Smith also called on ministers to do more to encourage “choice-editing” by supermarkets. These are the decisions that major retailers are beginning to make only to stock sustainable products, like free-range eggs or fair-trade bananas.
He added: “The Scottish government should encourage choice-editing by business in relation to food, either through legislation or incentives. The retail summit last week, attended by some of Scotland's major retailers, is a first step.”
Richard Lochhead, the cabinet environment secretary, sounded sympathetic to the SDC’s arguments. “We know that reducing the environmental impact of food and drink by encouraging more sustainable behaviour across the food chain can help towards a greener Scotland,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“Supporting food is in our national interests, and can help to build not only our economy but also help develop more environmentally friendly ways of producing food.”
Lochhead promised that he would consider the SDC’s submission alongside others in the near future. He encouraged more people to contribute to the Scottish government’s food discussion, which ends on 25 April.