News & Updates

Embedding sustainability in everything we do

Julie Hesketh-Laird

In the first of a series of blogs we plan to publish, following our Global Conference for Food Safety Regulation and Sustainability held this week to coincide with COP26, deputy chief executive Julie Hesketh-Laird outlines how FSS sees its role in the sustainability landscape.

The food we eat accounts for more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions globally - so everyone involved in food in any way (manufacturers, farmers, the supply chain to cooks and the media) has a part to play in better understanding how we can reduce its impact in a way that has a positive effect on our diet as well as the environment.

FSS is the public sector food body for Scotland, set up six years ago, uniquely independent of Ministers, to provide impartial and robust advice.

Our core objectives, set out in law are focussed on consumers - to protect the public from food health risks, to improve public diets, and to protect their other interests in relation to food.

Those first six years have focussed - as you’d expect in the wake of the UK horsemeat scandal - on the critical issues of food safety and developing detailed processes to ensure consumer safety right through the food chain.

But our new 5-year strategy features a commitment to sustainability – and so we’re now embedding that in everything we do.

We are already taking early steps in understanding our role as an enabler and facilitator to help Scotland reach its net zero goals.

We want to understand what consumers view as important and where their priorities lie; to listen to, learn, and collaborate with stakeholders, businesses, and innovators to help build positive connections to collectively address the challenges presented by climate change.

FSS is involved, for instance, in a number of initiatives which aim to improve the sustainability of our food and feed - from thinking about novel animal feed ingredients , working with Scottish Government colleagues on developments in insect farming for use  in animal feed, to working with Zero Waste Scotland to on a Food Waste Action Week in 2022.

We are also working to support changes to food labelling and packaging, which will reduce plastic waste while ensuring food is safe and clearly labelled.

These actions are driving our contribution, but we know we need to work harder and faster.

To date, governments and regulators have operated in a very focussed way delivering on their objectives. This is laudable and understandable.

For example at FSS, we help manage food risks. The Animal & Plant Health Protection Agency does what it says on the tin too and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency helps manage environmental risks.

But attitudes are changing, with growing recognition of the interdependencies and connectedness between human, animal, plant and planetary health.

There has been an acceleration towards ‘a whole systems’ approach, crossing traditional boundaries, identifying collective actions looking at things in a wider context and breaking down regulatory siloes.

This means in future, regulatory bodies must seek more proactive collaboration and discussion, to identify where their regulations pull in different directions and begin to decide which trade-offs are worth making in the race to net-zero.

My career before joining the civil service a year ago, was to support businesses grow sustainably and I’ve worked with some of the most successful Scottish and international businesses in the food and drink industry.

More often than not, they know what sustainable practice and products look like and have the imagination and capability to develop them. But competing regulations often hamper the best intentions.

For example, the French Government announced in September it will phase out plastic packaging for fresh fruit and veg by 2026. This should result in 1 billion fewer packages used annually. It’s an eye-catching move and there is good support in the UK for us to follow suit.

But should we? Will fruit & veg be more easily bruised and wasted if transported in less rigid packaging – or is there an opportunity to develop new ways of delivering perishables to consumers or packaging that keeps waste to a minimum and we see the full benefit of the policy change?

We’ll be watching the French initiative closely to see if the trade-offs were overall positive.

FSS’ current role is, and has been, to relentlessly pursue our primary consumer focussed food objectives.

In future, our role will increasingly be to manage the progressively more difficult trade-offs that come with our enlightenment on interconnectedness.

FSS’ future role is increasingly going to be closer involvement in helping governments decide the trade-offs they are prepared to make when they set policies and be ever more involved in guiding policy decisions through a whole systems approach to food and drink supply, sustainability, security and safety.

In the French example, the trade-off is the use of more sustainable packaging (or less or even no packaging) vs food waste. Other trade-offs might be, if we should go for commodity taxes on sugar and salt vs access to affordable food for all.

And if we’ll continue our use of medicines for animal welfare reasons vs increased farm runoff and water pollution.

These are the challenges we and other regulators must face into.

There are some things we can do now, however, without the need to persuade governments, that don’t necessarily require policy change.

First, where it can be demonstrated the risk of change is low, regulators must work hard to enable sustainable practices and not block them.

We can listen to stakeholders to identify where regulatory rules or attitudes act as barriers so we can begin to get out of the way of good work, if we are part of the problem, and become part of the solution.

And second, we can help by offering better certainty - farmers, businesses and individuals are reluctant to invest without it.

If we want companies to commit resources to sustainability as well as warm words, regulators need to be willing to signal direction of travel and provide regulatory certainty to investors so their investments will be appropriate and relevant, medium- and long-term.

I applaud the current initiative to establish a standardised UK ecolabel for food, for instance.

That should drive efficient adoption of ecolabels as it gives manufacturers a clear framework to align with, and certainty on what they should measure and report. It should also build consumer confidence, in that accurate comparisons of products impacts can be made to inform better choices.

There is no doubt that the need for ever more joined-up policy approaches from governments are needed – but regulators must work more collaboratively and cross traditional boundaries towards a systems approach.

FSS and our counterparts have much work to do.