25 August 2009 | Jake Kanter
Pressure groups have accused the government of showing a lack of leadership on food procurement. Jake Kanter asks what more it could be doing
Following a year of turbulent food prices and significant concerns over future food security, the UK government is not mincing words. Environment secretary Hilary Benn this month said the nation must "radically rethink" the way it produces and consumes food to protect future supplies.Encouraging greater engagement with domestic food vendors will play a big part and the government believes it can use its £2 billion annual spend to lead by example on local and sustainable sourcing.
Efforts are being spearheaded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra) Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative (PSFPI). Launched in 2003, it encourages government bodies to buy sustainable food and support domestic suppliers.
However, the key word is 'encourages'. And two reports out this month conclude the government is not doing enough to pioneer good practice. Food policy pressure group Sustain believes it must make the policy mandatory.
Lorna Hegenbarth, food chain adviser at the National Farmers' Union, says the PSFPI is "rudderless", and believes departments must collaborate more and ensure good practice is consistent.
"They need to understand the complexity of food procurement. There is very little purchasing data available so they don't know what they're buying and where it comes from."
Sustain says the issue is not taken seriously. It published an email this month from a senior buyer at NHS Supply Chain, which suggested the Department of Health's £48 million scheme to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among school pupils will not include sustainability criteria or support local farmers. "While I would really like to be fluffy and sustainable I also have to be realistic about the price," the email read.
NHS Supply Chain hit back, saying it takes sustainability "very seriously", and Defra argued the government is doing a lot of "good work". A report last year on the PSFPI found many public bodies have increased local purchasing since 2007, with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport sourcing 90 per cent of its food from domestic suppliers (News, 11 December 2008).
But Emma Hockridge, policy co-ordinator at food and farming charity the Soil Association, says the public sector as a whole needs to recognise the importance of buying "healthy, local, fresh and organic food".
Sustain's Alex Jackson says the government could learn from good practice in Italy, where a "school meal revolution" means children in Rome are given local, seasonal dinners.
He adds there are pockets of good practice in the UK which could be used to inspire others. He highlights the Cornwall Food Programme run by the county's NHS Trusts as an example.
But Helen Peck, senior lecturer in commercial and supply chain risk at Cranfield University, says the government is caught between a "rock and a hard place".
It takes sustainable food seriously, she adds, but is held back by the pressure to reduce costs, which can make cheaper imports more attractive.