We should listen to Unilever

The boss of Unilever wrote the foreword, and yet some sections of yesterday’s World Economic Forum report on ‘The Future of Nature and Business’ could have been written by Nourish:

“COVID-19 is a stark reminder of how ignoring biophysical risks can have catastrophic health and economic impacts at the global scale. If recovery efforts do not address the looming planetary crises – climate change and nature loss – a critical window of opportunity to avoid their worst impact will be irreversibly lost.”

The report gives significant attention to food, land and ocean systems. It cites recent estimates that the $10tn economic benefit of the global food and land use system is outweighed by the $12tn economic harms to health, climate and nature. It calls for a ‘Great Reset’ of the global economy, and offers the prospect of 400 million new jobs.

The report goes on to rehearse some of the ways to reduce the negative impacts of the food system, from biochar to dietary change and cutting food waste. But perhaps the most significant statement is tucked away in the middle of the executive summary:

“To successfully address this challenge will require tackling the indirect forces that underlie the drivers of nature loss – such as global trade, production and consumption patterns, governance mechanisms and the values and behaviours of society – something business alone can seldom do. Even as lasting transformational change will often require enforceable and coherent regulatory and policy mechanisms and a shift in societal values, business leadership can help shape the agenda and move the goalpost of what is politically possible.”

One might shudder at the prospect of more corporate influence in shaping the agenda – arguably there is too much of it already, and historically big businesses did not prove to be good stewards of our health or the environment.

And yet what they are very good at, and much more so than the politicians, is recognising risk. To paraphrase an old campaigning slogan: there is no trade on a dead planet. Their readiness to embrace transformational change, to show leadership in tackling the crises we face – even if brought about by threat to their profit margins – should be welcome. It has its place within robust regulatory frameworks and democratically decided priorities.

So as we start to talk about a green recovery in Scotland, how are we faring on our policy mechanisms and our societal values?

The First Minister’s repeated emphasis on kindness, love and solidarity makes for a strong foundation for the transition. These values, focused on collective wellbeing, set a clear and ambitious direction of travel. One could say the hardest part of the job has been done.

Our effort now – particularly in the context of food – needs to be on creating coherent policy; one which embraces the complex relationships between the health, climate and nature emergencies. This is ‘a critical window of opportunity’.

One of the key elements of the Good Food Nation bill was a cross-cutting National Food Plan. This ask had cross-party support and the case for it has only been strengthened.

2021 is a big year for food on the international stage, with food system change high on the agenda in several global gatherings from Davos to COP26 in Glasgow. Of course Government is stretched, with the pandemic affecting every aspect of our society and economy and Brexit looming. But these make an integrated food policy more important, not less.

The EU has the Farm to Fork strategy. England is working on a national food plan. In Scotland we are yet to have ours.