Using the Food Sustainability Index in the UK

The value of the FSI at a Country level

The Food Ethics Council believes that tools such as the Food Sustainability Index (‘FSI’) – from the Economist Intelligence Unit and Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition – can help drive a race to ‘goodness’ on food sustainability. Our Executive Director, Dan Crossley, has written an article in Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition’s report ‘Europe and food: Ensuring environmental, health and social benefits for the global transition‘ about how we have used this tool.

Challenging leadership claims
Being a world leader on food and farming requires taking food sustainability seriously. At a time of so much ‘fake news’ and unsubstantiated claims, the Food Sustainability Index (‘FSI’) is proving to be a valuable tool.

Part of our mission at the Food Ethics Council is to redefine what is meant by ‘success’ in our food systems and to track progress. Back in 2016, we scoped out the idea of an ‘in the round’ food index comparing how countries were doing on a range of tackling health, environmental, social justice and animal welfare concerns. But when we heard about the development of the FSI later that year, we breathed a sigh of relief and changed our approach. Our strength lies in bringing stakeholders together to unlock contentious ethical issues in food and farming, and to push for inclusive, fair and sustainable food policies. As such, the Economist Intelligence Unit (‘EIU’) together with BCFN were much better positioned to do a data analysis exercise of this sort.

The development of the FSI meant we could instead focus on three areas. Firstly, we are using the tool to shine a spotlight on UK performance and what it needs to do to improve. Secondly, we are using that to stimulate important debate on what the UK can learn from other countries, not least on food and farming policy. And thirdly, being independent of the FSI, we are able to constructively challenge FSI metrics. We want the metrics used to be further strengthened, to ensure the FSI is sufficiently robust and considers an appropriate range of environmental, health, social justice and animal welfare measures.

Shining a spotlight on national performance
For every year that the FSI has been published, we have produced an analysis of how the UK has done on food sustainability. Overall the UK’s performance is disappointing (16th out of 28 EU countries in 2018), particularly given the resources that the UK government has at its disposal. However, our analysis does not end with the disempowering message that the country is not doing as well as it should. We have used this to call for new approaches, new policies and a long-term, integrated approach to policymaking – some of which are now being adopted (e.g., the UK government’s commitment to a net zero carbon target). Our ‘Measuring UK food sustainability’ programme of work includes ‘Snapshot’, our most recent mini analysis of how the UK is doing in the FSI, and is freely available here.

We were also invited to speak to key Labour party officials to share our ‘Snapshot’ analysis (using the FSI) and to talk about the implications for food and farming policy. Having a basket of qualitative and quantitative measures that look at food sustainability in the round enabled us to give a subjective and grounded assessment, rather than merely guessing at how the UK is really doing. The FSI tool allowed us to critique UK performance, opened doors in terms of access to Parliamentarians and encouraged a much-needed, outward-looking, internationalist approach.

A tool to stimulate multi-stakeholder debate and learn from other countries
One of the most effective ways we have used the FSI has been with food and farming businesses, and invited policymakers, via our Business Forum – a community of leaders asking the big questions in food and farming.

These are regular dinner meetings held under the Chatham House rule, where we explore contentious ethical issues in depth with expert speakers and business executives.

We have used the FSI in country-specific events to learn from what leading countries in the index are doing, and what UK food & farming business and government can learn from them. Hence, we held a session seeing what we can learn from France in 2018 and another exploring ‘lessons from Denmark on food sustainability’ in 2019. The FSI proved an excellent springboard into a discussion about
what UK food and farming businesses – and UK government – should do to learn from food sustainability leaders. Crucially this has also been feeding into the development of the UK’s national food strategy. Write-ups of these country case study Business Forums are available on our website here.

Constructive challenge
We believe that the FSI is the best index currently available of its kind, which is why we have been promoting its use in a UK context. However, like any index, the FSI faces legitimate challenges about the timeliness and accuracy of data sources, the weighting of different indicators and the issues covered by existing metrics. We have attended meetings and roundtables with BCFN, EIU and others to suggest new metrics and data sources. This open approach and desire for continual improvement is something we welcome. The FSI has expanded its global scope since the first edition and, with input from organisations like ours, it has also introduced some new metrics.

There are two areas in particular where we think the FSI would still benefit from new measures. The first of these is the set of (social and environmental) impacts beyond agriculture. Failing to include for example climate change emissions that result from food processing, distribution and retail misses out an important piece of the overall jigsaw.

The second area that urgently needs strengthening is that of farm animal welfare. At present there is only one such indicator included in the FSI, which does not have sufficient weighting and which relates only to quality of animal welfare legislation, rather than how animals are looked after in practice. We have developed ideas for a number of farm animal welfare metrics that would help put animal welfare on more of a level footing with other social and environmental concerns. We have put those to BCFN and EIU for consideration of inclusion in future versions – see here.

What next?
The UK has now left the EU and its relationship with the EU is currently fragile. There has arguably never been a more important time for the UK government to be humble and to be open to learning from how other countries do things.

We encourage the EIU and BCFN to continue to publish the FSI on a regular basis and to continue to further strengthen the index each year. In particular we urge the inclusion of more farm animal welfare metrics.

Finally, we encourage NGOs and policymakers in other countries to use the FSI tool to drive a race to ‘goodness’ on food sustainability – not a selfish ‘race to the top’ at all costs, but a desire to be in the leading pack and to help raise the bar across the board. Let’s all join the food sustainability journey.

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition. The full report ‘Europe and food’ where this article appears is available on the website of Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition here.