Supermarkets and food businesses must take urgent action on plant-based foods, urges The Food Foundation

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Supermarkets and out-of-home food businesses must take urgent action to report on plant-based foods, urges a new report from The Food Foundation.

Tracking progress made by the sector in the past 12 months, the ‘Plating Up Progress’ report shows a more widespread move by supermarkets to setting targets for and disclosing sales-based data of healthy food, with five out of 11 supermarkets now having targets for sales of healthy or healthier food, compared to two this time last year.

However, despite this progress regarding healthy food, supermarkets are lagging behind on the actions urgently needed in order for the UK to meet its net zero targets. Only two of the 11 major UK supermarkets report on the percentage of their protein sales that come from animal versus plant-based sources, including meat alternatives and vegetables.

Just one supermarket, meanwhile, has a target to increase sales of plant-based proteins, and none have targets to shift sales away from animal sources of protein. This shift in protein sales will be vital if the UK is to shift to a net zero carbon economy and hit targets for drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In the out of home sector, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a slowing down of progress within the restaurant and catering sectors compared to supermarkets. Of the 18 major UK-operating caterers, quick service and casual dining restaurant chains, only five have targets for the percentage of menus to be plant-based or meat-free, while just one has a public target for the percentage of menus or products to be quantifiably healthy.

The report shows that all supermarkets, and 13 out of 18 restaurants, caterers and wholesalers, now either have net zero climate change targets that include scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions or have started (or committed to start) measuring these. However, few are actually reporting on scope 3 emissions and the lack of companies setting targets to shift their protein sales from animal-based to plant-based suggests that the implementation plans for scope 3 have not yet been fully developed.

Recommendations to government, businesses and investors

In response to these findings, The Food Foundation has issued a series of recommendations to government, businesses and investors to forge a consensus on metrics and reporting mechanisms that allows the food industry to make progress in transitioning to sustainable and healthy diets. These recommendations are as follows:

For government:

·       Ensure that the National Food Strategy recommendation for mandatory reporting on healthy and sustainable food sales goes into legislation.

·       Ensure the development of a database of environmental impacts to facilitate better reporting from food businesses on scope 3 emissions and biodiversity impacts.

For food businesses:

·       Actively support the government’s adoption of the National Food Strategy recommendation for mandatory reporting on healthy and sustainable food sales, to ensure that they are practicable and appropriate for the sectors.

·       Actively engage in industry collaborations to agree industry protocols for reporting on crucial environmental issues where progress is sorely needed, such as scope 3 emissions, sustainable water use, and biodiversity impacts.

For investors:

·       Use your influence to engage collectively with the government, as well as with food businesses, in support of recommendation for mandatory food industry reporting of healthy and sustainable food sales.

·       Using the questions provided in this Food Foundation report, engage with portfolios to put greater expectations on food businesses to disclose and set targets on material issues for health, environment and social justice across both their supply chain and their sales.

Anna Taylor, executive director, The Food Foundation said: “Our food system is in crisis, and is in desperate need of change to ensure that the industry is doing its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and work towards the UK’s net zero targets. International events such as COP26 and the Nutrition for Growth summit present a huge opportunity for the industry to come together with new global commitments, yet we are increasingly concerned about the stark differences in regular and transparent reporting on sustainability metrics, as detailed in our report.

“We need all food businesses to start setting targets that evidence the transition of their businesses to healthier and more sustainable food sales. However, the issues facing the food industry are too wide-ranging and complex for individual companies to solve in isolation. That is why we need government and investors to help drive this change towards regular and accurate reporting, to help food businesses and retailers shift to healthier, more sustainable practices.”

Kate Elliot, head of ethical, sustainable and impact research at Rathbone Greenbank Investments, said: “Driving change towards a healthy, sustainable food system should be a key concern for the investment community. If left unmanaged, the impact of the current food system on public health and the environment could pose systemic risks for the economy, society and investors. That is why we need investors to engage with food businesses to set clear targets and improve reporting.

“As consumer attitudes change, demand for companies that can provide a healthier, more sustainable alternative to the current food system is increasing, bringing with it a host of exciting new investment opportunities. Companies that can recognise and respond to this – whether through introducing new plant-based product lines, or reformulating existing products to be healthier – will see an advantage in sales and reputational kudos over those that lag behind.”

The full report can be viewed at: https://foodfoundation.org.uk/initiatives/plating-up-progress.

The Plating Up Progress dashboard assesses the progress being made by major UK-operating businesses within the food retail, foodservice and restaurant chain sectors across key themes relating to the transition to a healthy and sustainable food system. It shows which companies are setting their direction of travel and reporting transparently on their progress on areas as diverse as how they treat their workers, their transition away from plastic packaging and the healthiness of their food offer. Investors are increasingly using this dashboard as a vital source of data to inform their decisions and engagement with companies about their risk exposure.