France tops global food sustainability index

France has topped the rankings of an index which compares major countries on their actions to deliver food sustainability, thanks to its robust approach on food waste and agriculture.

More than 30 countries are ranked across the three pillars of sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges, and food loss and waste, in a league table created by The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition.

The Food Sustainability Index (FSI) scores France highly for effective policy response to food waste, reflecting proactive measures taken by successive governments to limit end-user waste. France loses just 1.8% of its total food production to waste annually.

The country passed legislation last year which prohibits supermarkets from throwing food away nearing its sell by date, and instead requires them to donate it to charities or food banks. Companies in France are also forced to include data on food waste in their CSR reports.

Germany, Spain and Italy are close behind France. A range of initiatives set up as part of Germany’s plan to half food waste by 2030 see it perform well, while Spain is one of four pilot countries in the EU-funded REFRESH programme which aims to limit waste throughout the supply chain.

Italy, which scores the highest possible for its policy response to food loss, has made it easier for companies to donate surplus food by relaxing laws that made donations to charity cumbersome.

The country also comes out on top in the sustainable agriculture pillar, thanks in part to pioneering new techniques for climate mitigation and adaptation. It is closely followed by South Korea, France and Colombia.

Japan scores the highest in the nutritional challenges section, reflecting its leading life expectancy levels of 84 years, as well as a strong performance in dietary patterns.

Food systems under pressure

The news is not entirely positive for industrialised western countries however. The US, for instance, ranks 24th in the nutritional pillar, dragged down by elevated levels of consumption of meat and saturated fat. Moreover, the sugar content of diets in the US is the highest among the 34 countries studied.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s managing editor Martin Koehring said: “Sustainable food systems are vital in achieving the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), notably ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture by 2030.

“However, major global developments such as climate change, rapid urbanisation, tourism, migration flows and the shift towards Westernised diets put food systems under pressure.”

UK losing its leadership role?

The UK scores fairly consistently high levels across the board, notching up one of the highest rankings for its policy action on food waste and loss. Under the EU Circular Economy Package, the UK is subject to a food waste reduction target of 50% by 2030, although this figure is only a voluntary aim.

Experts have warned that the UK risks losing its global leadership position on food waste. Around £13bn of food was waste in the UK in 2015 alone. According to WRAP estimates, more than half of this food waste total – around 7.3mt – derived from the home, costing the average household £470 a year.

Prominent food waste campaigners and MPs have previously made the case for the UK Government to “beef up” its regulatory approach, through various methods such national reduction targets and labelling reform. The Government has also been urged to force businesses over a certain size to publicly report data on food waste to create transparency.

Last week, waste agency Wrap unveiled a new date label guidance for food manufacturers and retailers to help tackle the amount of edible food discarded in UK homes. Since then, East of England Co-op has instigated a food waste clampdown with a scheme that allows shoppers to purchase food items past their best-before date.

Hidden costs of food

The Food Sustainability Index places the UK in the mid-range for its action on sustainable agriculture.

Research from the Fairtrade Foundation recently found that UK businesses are wary of working with rivals to strengthen supply chains as they fear falling foul of competition law. Fairtrade’s research came in the same week as a new report by the Sustainable Food Trust highlighted £120bn of annual hidden costs of food for the UK taxpayer.

With £120bn spent on food each year by consumers, this means that British citizens are, in effect, paying twice for their food, the report found.

The most significant share of this amount reportedly comes from the damaging impacts of intensive food production methods, such as environmental pollution, soil degradation and biodiversity loss.

George Ogleby

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