Written evidence submitted by Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming

Executive Summary


  1. Sustain is the UK alliance for better food and farming. We represent 100 not-for-profit national organisations and thousands more groups and enterprises at a local level. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been supporting community groups, enterprises, food aid groups, local authorities, and government and industry liaison on the emergency food response.
  2. Food has been disappointingly absent in conversations about a green recovery so far. Agriculture is responsible for about 20 per cent of emissions globally. If we also consider habitat loss, and the threats of antibiotic resistance and future zoonotic diseases, our food system is probably the single biggest risk to the health of our planet. It is, therefore, one of the main means by which we can address the climate emergency and the UK cannot meet its international commitments until it does.
  3. Food and farming is the UK’s largest employer, with 4.1 million people working in this sector in 2018. Or put a different way it’s 1 in 7 of the UK’s workforce.[i] The food and farming sector is one of the most resilient in economic downturns and also well distributed across the UK, from production, manufacturing, supply, catering and retail, and would act as a good platform from which to drive up employment. 
  4. Billions of public and private funds are being invested to help people and businesses through this Covid-19 crisis. These should be used to drive a resilient, fair, sustainable system of food, farming and fishing that works for everyone.

Please note much of the content of this response is due to be published in early September in a new Sustain briefing, provisionally titled Putting Good Food Jobs at the Heart of the Economic Recovery.

Contact: Ben Reynolds, Deputy Chief Executive of Sustain, email: Sustain’s Coronavirus Food Alert web pages are at:

Our response focuses in on the following questions from the inquiry: 3. In what areas should interventions be targeted to deliver both economic and environmental benefits in the short and long term? And 6: How can the economic recovery stimulus be used to deliver green jobs at a time of potentially high unemployment?

A. Sustainable Farming and Fishing – employment on the road to net zero 

  1. Changing the way we farm and use land could allow the UK to produce more of our own food, and more, better quality jobs on the land and in processing. The government is embarking on a new system for how it pays and supports farming as the UK leaves the EU Common Agriculture Policy. The planned Environmental Land Management Scheme and other funding and support policies could deliver these aims, if well designed and backed up with a strong regulatory framework and budget. This could ensure the majority of farmed land could and should be delivering climate, nature, environmental, heritage, public engagement and other outcomes with taxpayer support and would secure the livelihoods of existing farmers and their workers and create new employment via conservation activities and other requirements. These could include habitat creation, agro-forestry, silviculture (requiring tree planting and maintenance), soil conservation and whole farm nutrient management such as use of legume as nitrogen fixing to replace artificial fertiliser use.
  2. We would urge the Government to ensure that the new schemes support (agro-ecological) whole farm approaches, reach all farm sectors (including those not previously receiving much support e.g. horticulture) and provide training, advice and demonstration for farmers - an essential element for the major transitions needed.  These should also help facilitate farmer cooperation and collaboration, such as sharing costs of inputs or in working together to build better market opportunities for assured quality produce grown on farms looking after the environment. Such agro-environmental schemes can be significant in terms of socio-economic impact. A study by Gloucester University found that every £1 spent on similar environmental farming stewardship schemes delivers £1.42[ii] in economic benefits to the local community. 
  3. We need to ensure more land is made accessible and available for sustainable food growing. This includes space for environmentally beneficial fruit and nut tree planting, community food and small farm enterprises, especially in horticulture. Small scale agriculture appears not to have experienced the same urgent staff shortages as larger farms as they provide decent and year-round jobs compatible with family life. Releasing land for these enterprises, especially council owned land nearer to urban conurbations, could also provide access to land to respond to the demand from those living in cities, otherwise unable to pursue a career in farming[iii].
  4. To meet the challenges of the climate and nature emergency we can shift production by increasing demand for certified sustainable produce and supporting producers to become certified. Schemes such as Organic, RSPCA-assured, LEAF-Marque, Biodynamic, Pasture-Fed, Marine Stewardship Council, Aquaculture Stewardship Council all command a premium, with many having international recognition. The case for investment to increase conversion to these schemes is stronger when considering the markets this might open up: through both exports, where internationally recognised certification e.g. Organic, will command higher prices than it simply being British; and domestic markets, such as the public sector, where high procurement standards e.g. for fish, mean that UK fisheries which do not meet standards for sustainability cannot sell their produce. 
  5. In support of this Government should officially adopt 10% targets for UK organic production and market share. Whilst the environmental benefits of organic are well documented, the potential for providing more quality jobs at a time of high employment should not be overlooked. One study suggests that there are 32% more jobs per farm than equivalent non-organic farms.[iv] If all UK farmers adopted organic farming, it would produce an additional 93,000 on-farm jobs, helping to repopulate and rebuild struggling rural communities. We are not suggesting the UK goes 100% organic, but 10% over the next decade is both achievable and meaningful from the current baseline of 2.7% organic of total farmed area (6188 organic producers/processors (3544 producers).[v]
  6. We need to recover marine ecosystems to create jobs in the domestic fishing industry.
    This can be done by investing in four things: 1) better science, especially stock assessments 2) paying fishers to catch less in the short term to recover stocks 3) funding improvement projects and sustainability certification and 4) a moderate re-balance in the way fishing rights are shared out. These actions would significantly increase fish catches in the medium and long term (probably by nearly 30 per cent), create thousands of jobs and improve the marketability of our fish. These jobs are especially needed in coastal communities like Cornwall, the east coast of England, west Wales and northern Scotland. It would also allow the UK to produce more food for domestic markets and export.
  7. In some cases, it makes sense to pay fishers to leave fish in the sea in the short term and allow ecosystems to recover, rather than catch fish with a depressed market value, thus taking the same ‘public money for public goods’ approach as for farming. Flourishing marine ecosystems would also boost wildlife tourism, recreational fishing opportunities and ‘level up’ coastal communities, which have been some of the most affected by Covid-19.

B. Manufacturing and the circular economy 

  1. The concept of a circular economy should be at the heart of any economic recovery, but particularly a green one. A circular food economy means keeping value in the food chain on bi-products or elements that would otherwise go to waste, helping to create jobs whilst also benefitting the environment by reducing waste or landfill. There needs to be more support to mainstream, scale up or replicate businesses in this sector. Some notable areas are those turning fruit and veg that would go to waste into soups, smoothies, sauces, preserves or fruit leathers (see Rubies in the Rubble, ChicP and Spare Snacks) and those turning bread and baked goods past its best into beer (see Toast Ale), or closing this loop further by using spent grain from brewing and distillation into snacks, flour, and ultimately bread again (see Agrain and Circular Food Technology). . 
  2. Government should reform the law to allow well-regulated, safely treated surplus animal protein in non-ruminant feed (ecofeed), and support a modern, robust heat and acidification treatment system to address the contamination problems associated with the old forms of this practice. This would create a new ‘surplus food-to-feed’ industry creating green jobs and new business opportunities across the UK[vi]. 
  3. Despite the 12.7 million tonnes of food waste generated per year in the UK omnivorous non-ruminant livestock such as pigs and chickens are primarily fed on pulses, oilseed and cereal crops, using up valuable resources including land in the Amazon[vii]. As well as the environmental benefits of shifting to sources closer to home, this would provide more stability for UK producers impacted by price fluctuations and availability of imports, with the livestock industry identifying this as a major concern in the recent pandemic. Feed costs make up around half of pig production costs.
  4. The USA, New Zealand and Australia all allow heat-treated surplus animal protein in non-ruminant feed, and leaving the EU will allow us to define our own rules and innovate on use of food waste for animal feed. REFRESH Life Cycle Costing (LCC) analysis found that using surplus food for animal field could yield net savings of €278m per year in the UK (using a liquid feeding system) – meaning it would be economically viable without subsidies[viii].
  1. A change in the labelling regulations – an Honest Crust Act - would shift a part of the market for speciality bread to those businesses supporting more jobs.[ix] This would remove one of the barriers to growth of small Real Bread bakers who have to compete with misleading labelling used by some manufacturers and retailers on products that don’t have the benefits associated with them, with little to no scrutiny9. Assuming that some of that market demand would shift with these products, rather than solely rely on convenience, a change in the labelling regulations would create a more level playing field upon which, those smaller businesses could create and support more jobs, as many provide more jobs per loaf.   


C. Retail and Catering  supporting diverse and resilient food supply chains


  1. The lockdown measures have seen a decimation of the hospitality and catering sector and those supplying it, many of whom were unable or unsupported to switch or scale up to supply elsewhere. Some set up online retail ordering services to sell direct to customers, though usually at a smaller scale than their previous lines of business[x]. Any measures to help support catering, should be done by prioritising support for those selling healthier and sustainable options, many of whom are part of schemes like Food for Life or the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
  2. Set mandatory procurement standards and budgets so that public sector spend on food to support sustainable diets and jobs in Britain. If meals in hospitals, care homes, schools, prisons and defence reflected the Government Eatwell Guide, One Planet Plate, and the recommendations of the Eating Better Alliance, we could see significant benefits for climate change, and for jobs in UK farming and supply chains. Broadly, it would mean:
    Reducing the amount of meat served overall and redirecting this money to purchase of sustainable meat, dairy and eggs. These industries support more and better livelihoods in the UK. For inspiration, see PS100, the public sector caterers network, who cut down on meat by 20 per cent during lockdown.
    – Serving more domestically grown fruit and vegetables, including specifying varieties more suited to our climate, which would be a valuable boost to the UK horticulture sector and would support the land use changes proposed in paragraph 6-7.
    – Serving less heavily processed food and drinks. Sugar, soya and palm oil associated with heavily processed food are major causes of habitat loss, normally overseas. Spending less on these products would help respond to the climate and nature emergency and support more investment in food from UK producers.
  3. The ethos of the Preston model, with its focus on community wealth and local supply, should be applied more widely to public food procurement, as has been done recently in the South West by Councils working with Fresh Range[xi], a successful digital platform enabling sourcing from smaller local suppliers within larger contracts.
  4. A revamped meals on wheels offer, fit for the 21st century could provide a growth in jobs and procurement of sustainable British produce. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic more than 1.3 million people over 65 in the UK were malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. Yet in recent years provision of meals on wheels has drastically declined, to now less than half (42%) of local authority areas. Building on existing innovative models around the UK and abroad, we estimate that a £7.5million annual contribution across 150 upper tier local authorities would provide a nationwide service, removing the current postcode lottery. It would lead to dispersed employment across the UK, and act as a catalyst for twice as much investment from private sources, as well as provide huge savings for the NHS which has to care for many of those malnourished who end up in hospital. 
  5. Beyond procurement – two other notable sources of spend are the School Fruit and Veg scheme and Healthy Start vouchers. Both should have targets for British agroecological producers to better support the aims of a green economic recovery. The School fruit and veg scheme contract is worth £40m annually, and as a minimum it should have seasonal specifications which would better suit British producers, and have targets for a year on year increase of sustainable British produce. If there was 100% take up of Healthy Start, this would mean £84m going back to sustainable UK growers. Whilst it is unlikely that such restrictions would be put on the spend of these vouchers which go to low income parents of young children, the value of the vouchers could be increased if redeemed against British or certified sustainable produce, thus nudging purchasing towards these options.
  6. We believe the country needs a food retail plan to achieve a target of at least a 10% market share for non-multiples. Increased diversity of supply chain options for businesses to sell to could have environmental and economic benefits. A report by the Dynamic Food Procurement National Advisory Board points to a food system that is dominated by too few distributors, over-specialisation, and too much power at the end of the supply chain.[xii] 
  7. Retail is a particular concern with over 95% of groceries are sold through the top 9 multiples, and 3.7% of the market share for the alternatives.[xiii] In recent decades, many producers have had to make the choice to scale up and simplify production or go out of business. Recent events have left them with even less power in the supply chain or choice of who to sell to. 
  8. This squeeze has contributed to the decline of small and family farms which can be seen as synonymous with the decline in farm diversity, nature and environmental goods, and with jobs in rural economies.[xiv] As farms disappear or are amalgamated wildlife features and habitats are lost.[xv] Research also shows the smallest farms (below 20ha) hold the highest concentration of parcels of deciduous woodland, semi-natural vegetation and extensive grass.[xvi] University of Exeter surveys suggests that smaller farms also employ more labour per unit of area.[xvii] A focused drive on supporting supply chain diversity particularly in retail will help reverse this decline, and with it open up many new job opportunities[xviii]. 
  9. This plan should include policies and investment that drive development of new and diverse routes to market and a growth in street, farmer and covered markets, co-ops, box schemes, independent, local on-line and symbol group shops. A special focus should be given to increasing the number of Better Food Traders that are, by mission and design, able to deliver a fair system for producers and workers, as well as the planet. Some of the policies needed to support this are detailed in our briefing on food retail diversity[xix]. 
  10. Markets are one of many sectors that will be building back from a virtual standstill during lockdown, with roughly two thirds of markets closed even after Government had clarified that most markets could open for essential traders[xx]. With the predicted growth of unemployment in the UK we need not only for all these markets to be supported to reopen, but new ones too, better distributed across the UK as they provide flexible spaces to support small or start up enterprises. They also provide many more jobs per square metre than supermarkets. Despite having almost 50,000 towns and cities in the UK, there are only just over 1000 markets[xxi]. A concerted effort to quadruple the number of markets could lead to 100,000 new business opportunities, or at least expansion of (32,400) existing businesses, not to mention the extra trade created for nearby businesses on market days. This will require funding, and buy-in particularly from local government, and most importantly it needs high profile national leadership to give this vision the profile needed for it to succeed. 




[i] DEFRA (2020). Food Statistics in your pocket Summary. GOV.UK



[iv] These findings are based on the first national survey of employment on UK organic farms, carried out by the University of Essex for the Soil Association.





[ix] An Honest Crust Act



[xii] Manifesto for a resilient, adaptable and sustainable UK food system



[xv] ‘Postwar changes in arable farming and biodiversity in Great Britain’, Journal of Applied Ecology Issue 1, pp157-176, February 2002, Landscape diversity section

[xvi] Lobley, M. (1997, 2000) cited in Winter, M. and Lobley, M. 2016, pp 49-51

[xvii] Winter, M. and Lobley M (2016), p54 – see above







August 2020