The Food Ethics Council was instrumental in setting up the Sustainable Food Supply Chains Commission alongside the Industry and Parliament Trust and the University of Warwick. So it was a real pleasure to chair the final meeting, where we unveiled the Commissioners’ report. 

We set up the Commission in the wake of the horsemeat scandal in January 2013, and the subsequent public outcry over the integrity of the supply chains of the food being sold to UK citizens.

Our aim was to set up a commission, drawn from UK parliament, the food industry and academia, to explore the challenges facing food companies in ensuring the sustainability of their supply chains, and investigate significant upcoming policy developments – actual and potential – that relate to those challenges. This included a number of industry case studies cited by one or more commissioners.

The remit was very broad: commissioners were asked to look at social, environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability and at both domestic and global supply chains.

The process of unravelling some of the huge issues facing food supply chains – from concentration of market power and unfair treatment of suppliers to climate change – was clearly something the Commissioners relished. They said they found the Commission process challenging and surprising.

They also came away impressed with some of the activities of the most progressive food businesses.  These examples of more forward-looking businesses gave the Commissioners grounds for optimism, particularly around the value of long term relationships and how ‘doing it right’ can be good for business. So why aren’t all companies following suit?

Commissioners heard how significantly cutting waste right along the supply chain resulted in savings for business that could be passed on to consumers and could be used to pay producers a higher margin.

One of the challenges raised by the Commission was how to get affordable, sustainable, healthy food on the radar of those for whom (perhaps understandably) it is not currently a priority.

Commissioners heard of the rise in demand for greater traceability and transparency. I would hope that the growing sense of urgency and scale of the challenges ahead will help motivate those companies that lag behind the ‘early adopters’.

A key take-home message was that – as we have done in this Commission – food businesses, governments and academics really need to share their knowledge and convene bold new coalitions to encourage all food businesses to ensure their supply chains are genuinely sustainable.

I’m not going to pretend that our Commission solved the problems – and our Commissioners wouldn’t either! In some senses we came away with more questions than answers. How do we get an appropriate balance between voluntarism and regulation in creating fair and transparent food chains? To what extent can the market be relied on to address deeper challenges around (for example) fairness and environmental stewardship? And what role for the EU in these complex issues?

To that end, I’ll be in Brussels with a number of our Commissioners in November making the case for sustainable food supply chains at an EU level.

In the meantime we all agreed that food businesses and governments need to consider the difference between what is ethically acceptable (meeting minimal standards e.g. avoidance of child labour) and what’s positively commendable (e.g. actively promoting economic development and empowerment of suppliers).

What we need to do now is help speed up the shift to doing what’s positively commendable and raise the ethical minima.

I’d urge everyone reading this blog to also read the report

It teases out some of the difficult questions around how our food gets to our plates. I hope you will be inspired as much as our Commissioners were to go away and help make sustainable food supply chains a reality.