For two years I have been the lead editor of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s food sustainability programme, centred on the Food Sustainability Index (FSI). As I bow out to focus on heading The Economist Group’s World Ocean Initiative, I am reminiscing about the great impact the FSI is having on stimulating policy dialogue and progress.

The FSI, developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, is a quantitative and qualitative benchmarking model that assesses the sustainability of food systems in 67 countries globally. The index includes three pillars: food loss and waste; sustainable agriculture; and nutritional challenges. This tool allows for comparison between countries and food-system indicators. It highlights best practices that food-system stakeholders—including policymakers, civil society organisations, the private sector, academia and research, and the media—can use to design roadmaps toward more sustainable food systems. Ultimately, it can support efforts to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as food is a common thread linking all 17 SDGs, given the interconnected economic, social and environmental dimensions of food systems.

Shaping policy dialogue in the UK

In the UK, the FSI team has been working with the Food Ethics Council. The council’s work on Measuring UK food sustainability represents an example of how the FSI can be integrated into policy-related outreach and engagement with key stakeholders.

The Economist Intelligence Unit has participated regularly in the Council’s business fora, using the FSI as a tool to stimulate valuable discussion on food-sustainability lessons from other countries. For example, in March 2018 the Business Forum focused on France, which has topped the FSI for three years in a row. In a special case study we highlighted that France is a global leader in limiting food loss and waste, for example thanks to legislation requiring supermarkets of a certain size to redistribute leftover food to charities serving poor communities. It also deals well with nutritional challenges and benefits from sustainable approaches to farming via its agro-ecology project. The forum brought together key UK food-system stakeholders from business, civil society and policymaking to learn about the UK’s performance in the FSI and learn lessons from a French food policy expert.

In June 2019 the Council’s business forum focused on the lessons on food sustainability from Denmark. Denmark came second in the latest FSI’s sustainable agriculture category and third in the nutritional challenges category. Overall, Denmark came seventh among 35 high-income countries, well ahead of the UK (21st in this income category). Participants learnt about key food-sustainability lessons from Denmark from Lise Walbom, CEO of Food Nation Denmark, a public-private partnership supported by major players in the sector.

Participants heard how Denmark’s collaborative approach to food issues has created a broad consensus on food sustainability, reflected for example in food labelling; a 2030 roadmap for sustainable meat; a commitment to halving food waste by 2030; the Whole Grain Partnership; a National Action Plan with clear goals; and public procurement rules for schools, kindergartens and hospitals. The focus was on the benefits of looking at food sustainability through the whole value chain.

The inclusion of the FSI in such knowledge-sharing fora has already had tangible benefits for policymaking in the UK and beyond. For example, the new landmark UK food report from the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission refers to the FSI. The latest policy dialogues are also likely to feed into the UK’s National Food Strategy, due to be released in 2020. The FSI can play a crucial role in identifying the areas that need particular attention, such as the prevalence of overnourishment, greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture, diversification of the agricultural system and participation of youth in farming.

Engaging current and future leaders

Our outreach has also focused on future leaders via academic engagement. For example, the FSI team discussed the index, best practices in food sustainability (the focus of our latest Fixing Food report) and hot topics in food sustainability (based on our regular blogs and articles) at various academic conferences, for example the Green Economics Institute’s annual conferences at the University of Oxford and the Cambridge Global Food Security Symposium.

We have also spoken about the index with various influential groups of current and future food-system leaders, including young journalists gathered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, diplomats from Italy and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

As part of our influencer outreach, we have been running a successful food sustainability blog. Contributors have included Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general; José Graziano da Silva, FAO director-general; and Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.

The importance of wider media engagement

In addition to the scientific and policy communities, the media also play a crucial role in supporting food system transformation. The FSI is making an important contribution—and this has been recognised in the wider media industry. Notably, the FSI campaign won the “Brand & Media Owner Partnership” accolade at the World Media Awards. The judges said that “this partnership created a genuine tool, and the choice of partnership was crucial to its impact. The tool lives beyond the campaign to help improve our world.” The index has also won the “Best Creative Solutions Led Content Marketing Campaign” at the AOP Digital Publishing Awards.

With science, policy, the media and the wider public being increasingly engaged on food-sustainability issues, I am optimistic that systemic transformation is possible. Tools like the FSI can play an important role in bringing different food-system stakeholders together and accelerating progress.

Martin Koehring has held various senior editorial roles at The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), including managing editor, global health lead and Europe editor. For several years he was the lead editor of the EIU’s award-winning food sustainability programme. From September 2019 he will be the new head of The Economist Group’s World Ocean Initiative.