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Is sustainable food and drink being outflanked by competing priorities?

James Halliwell
4 min read
AUTHOR: James Halliwell
person placing carton package in a yellow recycling bin, trees in background

If you work in food and drink you’ll know that sustainability is a top priority. So it might be galling to read that Keir Starmer hates tree huggers and Rishi Sunak can’t be bothered with any of it. Maybe the PM feels he has delegated these issues effectively to Defra, led by Therese Coffey, though her leadership of the department hasn’t wowed many – and now it’s backtracking on the grandstanding recycling scheme it’s been trailing for five years.

Fresh from last week’s criticism of Rishi Sunak’s “uninterested” approach to tackling the climate crisis, Defra has shelved plans for mandatory food waste reporting and could eliminate other aspects of the extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme, which it’s been working on since 2018. FDF CEO Karen Betts told a recent recycling conference that although the industry supports the EPR legislation, it is not currently “fit for purpose” and the “fragmented state” of the current recycling system in the UK will see EPR targets missed. She also suggested the EPR “appears to resemble a tax rather than a responsibility scheme”. 

If the EPR isn’t fit for purpose then the government is right to pause it, running with it anyway would be a fiasco for all concerned. Equally, if it isn’t ready to go after five years that suggests not enough time and energy has been invested by the government in the detail or infrastructure an effective EPR demands. It’s a blow for anyone interested in seeing a more sustainable food system in the UK, and stands in stark contrast to the EU, which has just announced a mandatory 30% industry reduction in food waste.

It also adds to the growing perception that the corridors of power do not view the sustainable agenda as a priority. That would be a problem, because implementing systemic change in any industry needs the government to help support it, fund it, and regulate it, especially if the reasons for that change are sustainable rather than profitable.

Everyone knows UK politics has many competing priorities, but in food and drink sustainability has been a matter of some urgency for some time, at vast effort and great expense, such as preparing for the EPR. So how much should the food and drink industry read into this apparent reticence by the PM, or the next government, to commit the required resource and budget to sustainable initiatives?


It probably doesn’t need to worry about Starmer’s comments right now. Labour’s current goal is power, so it’s understandable to relegate the emotive issue of climate change for the moment. A proud stance on a polarising issue can torpedo any political campaign. If anything Starmer’s rant about activists is probably intended as an old-fashioned vote winner.

At the moment Keir Starmer wants to talk about how Labour plans to ease the cost-of-living crisis, not whether he supports Just Stop Oil disrupting Wimbledon, and he definitely doesn’t want to dangle future costs in front of any industry. Maybe once power is secured he will push sustainability harder, as many senior Labour colleagues are urging him to do. 

But whoever the next government is, it will find a largely receptive crowd in food and drink if it does move ahead with sustainable moves like the EPR. Whatever hyperbolic headlines you read about the food and drink industry as a global whole, the vast majority of the UK food and drink industry is committed to embedding and improving sustainable practices. Many food and drink businesses, like Tesco, publicly supported the EPR proposals. 

As our latest podcast shows, they are not the only food and drink businesses willingly making a meaningful commitment to tackling sustainable issues like emissions. Great credit should go to Wrap and WWF for uniting the majority of the supermarkets together to start progress. Although by encouraging and guiding them along, and threatening to hold companies to account if they resist, it feels like they are doing the government’s sustainability work for them. 

To find out more about Sustainable Food Week click here.


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