Blog: Reviewing our approach to food in the quest for carbon-neutrality

September 27, 2017 Amanda Skeldon

In discussions about climate change, food is often left off the agenda. It’s an omission that occurs across the board and right to the top, with current UK government policy on climate change giving little heed to the influence from food production.

But, in the EU, agriculture alone is responsible for 10% of carbon emissions. And when considered alongside the impacts of food processing, chemical manufacture and food distribution, the potential impact of food on climate change becomes tangible, with latest estimates attributing an alarming one third of greenhouse gas emissions to the farming and food industry.

Getting food on the climate change agenda is something that the Soil Association are working hard for, and we continue to lobby parliament about the very low carbon reduction targets set for farming. But while agricultural goals would help shift carbon influence in one area of the food chain, it can’t fix the whole issue.

As citizens, we each have a responsibility to our planet and a duty of care to the environment in which we live. It’s easy, when you’re just one person or organisation, to underestimate the influence you can have, but the bigger picture can be encouraging. The UK’s charge for one-use carrier bags has resulted in around 83% fewer carrier bags being sold in main retailers since the regulation was introduced in 2015, equivalent to more than six billion bags. And the Love Food Hate Waste campaign reports that the UK is already saving 4.4 million tonnes of CO2 a year through being more resourceful in the kitchen.

Positive steps such as this should encourage us that our actions can make a difference, in homes and in other areas including the workplace. For businesses, perhaps it’s time now to turn our heads more towards our food behaviour.

Small changes can deliver big benefits

Sustainability in foodservice is an area of untapped potential for businesses. CSR strategies are frequently strong in areas of waste reduction, recycling improvements and energy saving. Food waste is often high on the agenda, but seldom do these strategies place a comparative focus on food provenance. But linking sustainability and food in a meaningful way can bring big benefits, and demonstrate a real commitment to ethical consumerism in the workplace. It’s is an area where businesses, and their caterers, have an opportunity to make small but significant changes that support sustainability.

One of the first areas to look at is where food is coming from. Buying locally means fewer emissions from transportation, and fresher produce. It can be a boost for the local economy, and an opportunity to get more involved in the community through establishing supply chains with local farmers or businesses. The local approach also promotes seasonal produce, reducing the need to import out of season fruits and vegetables, instead making the most of the ‘best of British’.

The benefits are not only environmental. We eat, on average, one third of our calories outside the home, and for many of us that third incorporates our workday lunches. Catering has a big role to play in supporting healthy diets and providing options that encourage positive eating habits. Serving more fresh food is not only appealing for the consumer, and therefore more profitable for the kitchen, it can also have a positive influence on staff wellbeing.

Tapping the potential

Over the past few years the Soil Association has been building on its work with businesses around the UK, helping them address their approach to food and its impact on the workplace as part of the Food for Life Served Here award scheme. The scheme started in schools almost a decade ago, but soon caught the interest of other sectors including healthcare and visitor attractions and there are currently over 1.7 million Food for Life Served Here meals being served every day in the UK.

In the workplace Food for Life Served Here can augment wider CSR strategies, staff engagement plans and health initiatives. The scheme calls on caterers to buy locally and seasonally, and prepare food on site, demonstrating a commitment to ethical and sustainable food. It encourages health benefits through making free water a requirement and ensuring foods don’t contain unwanted additives. It touches on other areas too: promoting free-range or organic produce supports better animal welfare and, in the case of organic, the bigger benefits include lowering greenhouse gas emissions, reducing pesticide use and supporting wildlife in the countryside. Being open about where the food on the menu has come from helps to engage staff and strengthen their food knowledge, with knock-on effects for eating behaviours outside the workplace. It’s a holistic approach that can support environmental goals, enhance a business’s role in the community and deliver benefits for staff.

An early adopter of Food for Life Served Here was London-based company Pearson, who have held the award at the highest level since 2012 both for their staff food and their conference catering. Sustainability is a fundamental ingredient in Pearson’s ethos, with key drivers from staff being health and the environment. Their desire to deliver a sustainable food offer came from the grass roots, driven by staff and by the ideals that are inherent in the company’s core values, and Food for Life Served Here was a clear choice. It allows them to make a strong statement to their staff and their visitors: shifting a long-standing commitment to delivering ethical food to an accredited achievement that builds trust and pride for their workforce.

Pearson are one of the 23 award holders we currently have in the business sector that, between them, deliver 18,000 meals a day in 49 workplaces. It’s an area that we recognise as having huge potential for growth and that we will be increasingly focused on in coming months. And with Brexit around the corner this is a great time to shape strong local relationships with food producers, support British farming and develop resilience both for business and for agriculture in the UK.

To see how Food for Life Served Here could help your business develop a more strategic approach to food visit www.soilassociation.org/served-here

Rich Watts is Senior Food for Life Served Here Manager at the Soil Association. His role is to grow the award scheme across all sectors, understanding how it fits with organisational objectives, how it can benefit the award holder and how it complements wider national thinking on environment and health.

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