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‘Plating up progress’ shows how investors have an important role to play in the shape of our future food system

No part of our economy matters more than food

We arrived some time ago at a global consensus that our food system presents urgent challenges with which we must grapple. Populations are growing, diet-related conditions are harming the lives of millions, and we are contending with these issues under increasing pressure from a changing climate which is altering what our land will yield.

Since beginning work on the National Food Strategy – an independent review of our food system and recommendations for delivering change – I’ve argued that no part of our economy matters more than food. It’s vital to life, it shapes our sense of identity, and it provides jobs for one in eight people in England.

Much of this is made possible by a free market that produces, exports, imports, processes and serves up an astonishing variety of reasonably-priced foods in unprecedented abundance. But the way we produce and consume food is doing significant damage to human and planetary health. As an economic force that helps drive the food industry’s development, it is interesting to consider the role that investors could play in demanding and supporting the shift towards more healthy and sustainable food.

Desire to care for our environment and protect our health need not be the only motivation for new approaches to investing. Analysis in Plating Up Progress suggests investors can identify opportunities and avoid risks by understanding how far food businesses are prepared for the shift to a healthy and sustainable food system.The new briefing from the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) at the University of Oxford and independent think tank the Food Foundation highlights potential returns from businesses that use healthy and sustainable models, points to risks that investors could avoid by sidestepping businesses which are rooted in the current system, and puts forward the necessary metrics for assessing progress.

In order to understand what needs to happen to get us from our current model to a healthy and sustainable system that is robust in face of future shocks, the National Food Strategy will require a rigorous analysis of the structures and economics that result in existing outcomes. Some of the decisions will be moral and aesthetic judgements, some will be economic calculations, but it’s critical that we engage those involved in all elements of the food industry. I encourage investors to consider not just how they can accelerate progress towards a healthier and more sustainable system, but what they might stand to win themselves by doing so.

Plating Up Progress is a thought-provoking and insightful report. It proposes a series of questions that investors should ask when they are looking at food businesses and puts forward metrics that businesses can use for building into risk assessments. Discussions on these issues between investors and management teams could begin to build the kind of coalition of responsibility that we all know we need: investors, businesses and policy makers working together to strengthen the business case for change.

Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of Leon restaurants and the Sustainable Restaurant Association, is leading a review of the UK’s food strategy.