Knowledge for better food systems

Food Ethics Council

Photo of Tom Tomich TheFood Ethics Council challenges government, business and society to make wise choices that lead to better food and farming. Uniquely, we focus on how choices are made and we champion decisions that are:
  • Principled - aiming to benefit people, animals and the planet, and to treat each fairly and with dignity.
  • Informed - based on sound knowledge and diverse experience, but ready for surprises.
  • Inclusive - involving and answerable to the people they affect.

Who are you?

We are a charity and our work is not for profit. Donations from foundations and individuals make our work possible. We also fund our work by selling publications, organising events and undertaking research. We only accept support that does not compromise our independence. We are not affiliated to any political party or religious organisation. Our sixteen council members - all leaders in relevant fields - are appointed as individuals. They bring a broad range of expertise to our work, from academic research through to practical knowledge of farming, business and policy.

Picture of Tom MacmillanWhat do you do?

We work as an independent think tank and advisory body, challenging government, business and the public on ethical issues and championing better decision-making. Our members lead this work in a voluntary capacity and our staff support them through research, analysis and advocacy. We publish reports and a magazine, we organise deliberative workshops and events, and we develop tools for ethical decision-making. We extend our reach by working with others, including public bodies, companies, campaign groups and research institutes. We focus on how choices are made about difficult problems and emerging controversies. Our work has spanned genetically modified foods, drug use in farm animals, public involvement in science, functional foods, gene-tailored diets, patents and poverty, farm subsidies and food transport. Based in Brighton, our work starts in the UK but its scope is global.

What are you currently working on?

Our current flagship project enters the contested territory of the 'food miles' debate, looking at the role of transport and planning policies in shaping a more sustainable food system, which is clearly one in which greenhouse gas emissions are minimised (though our understanding of sustainability encompasses a broader set of issues than climate change alone). Running for two years from autumn 2006, the project's starting point is the controversial policy of road pricing. Road pricing, whereby motorists are charged directly according to their use of roads, with charges potentially varying according to the time, place, distance and type of vehicle driven, is central to the UK government's transport strategy and a nation-wide system is possible within the next ten years. The concept is fraught with political difficulties however; earlier this year a petition against the concept of a national road pricing scheme on the 10 Downing Street website attracted 1.8 million signatures. And while, on the face of it, road pricing would seem to offer incentives for less and more efficient road transportation of food, perhaps encouraging modal shift, discouraging long haul trucking and car-based out-of-town shopping, there may be some counterintuitive devil's in the detail. Might reduced congestion, resulting from a pricing system make trucking - and trucking further - more, rather than less attractive for food businesses? Might high city centre road prices encourage people to drive further to out-of-town stores? The Food Ethics Council is interested in whether, and how, road pricing, if it were to be introduced, could affect the way that food consumed in the UK is transported, and in the knock-on effects for sustainability of any changes in distribution patterns. If road pricing will have effects on food distribution, we are keen that it is developed in a way that contributes to the sustainability of food systems; and, moreover, that transport policy in general, is developed with an eye to the consequences in fields beyond transport itself. The overall aim of the project is therefore: to harness any potential of road pricing to promote sustainable food systems by ensuring that impacts on food distribution are fully considered in transport policy. The project avoids the simplistic equation 'more miles = bad', acknowledging that the efficiency of the vehicle and of loading, and the mode of transport may be more significant than the distance travelled, that transport may be a relatively small component of a product's lifecycle carbon emissions - and that sustainability is about a much bigger agenda than climate change alone. Graphic of food delivery vans

What work have you completed to date?

The first phase of the project, from September to December 2006, investigated the assumptions behind current thinking about road pricing, and the likely effects of road pricing schemes, especially in relation to food shopping and the food industry. This work resulted in a discussion paper, highlighting the key issues for road pricing and its effects on food distribution and an expert stakeholder workshop held to debate the questions identified in the discussion paper. Among the most striking arguments put forward at the workshop were that:
  • the most important effects of road pricing on the food industry are likely to be indirect, with road pricing leading to changes in consumer shopping habits and consequently to changes in the operation of retail outlets and associated distribution systems;
  • there is a strong case for investing (whether using revenue from road pricing or elsewhere) in infrastructure and 'soft measures' to reduce the need for transport in the first place, rather than to make it easier to travel (for example, by supporting a greater number of local abattoirs, thus reducing the need for live animal transport). Without this, the benefits of reduced congestion resulting from road pricing may disappear over the medium term;
  • there is uncertainty about the likely effects of road pricing on both shopping patterns and food businesses. Consequently, the pilot schemes to be funded under the Transport Innovation Fund should capture information about the effects of road pricing on 'everyday' behaviours and practices such as food shopping, and transport within the food sector.
The second phase of the project, running until autumn 2007, looks at the context in which road pricing policies might be operating, by examining possible futures for food distribution. A series of linked workshops, entitled 'Food Miles 2022', have helped us to develop four plausible pictures of how the UK's food system - and especially its distribution system - could look 15 years into the future, based on what we already know about influential trends and drivers that will create changes from today's world. We are currently using these future scenarios to analyse their benefits and drawbacks, and what they tell us about the kinds of policy responses - including around the specification of road pricing - that might steer us in a more sustainable direction. The scenarios should also provide a strategic planning tool for businesses involved in food distribution and retail, and for policymakers, especially in the fields of food, transport and land use planning, at national and local levels. We are expecting to publish the scenarios and the supporting research in late summer 2007. With the help of the scenarios we are also developing a preferred 'vision' of how we might like the future to turn out. Working back from the vision to the present will help us assess the kinds of decisions that will need to be made by policymakers and others if we are to move in a more sustainable direction. A key section of these recommendations will focus on how road pricing can most positively be developed to help contribute to the achievement of our vision. Across both phases of the project we have had extensive engagement with stakeholders from across industry, public policy and the third sector, at workshops and in one-to-one discussions. During late 2007 and early 2008 we aim to disseminate our emerging findings widely. We are particularly aiming to reach policymakers at the national level and local policymakers in regions bidding for finance for road pricing pilot schemes from the government's Transport Innovation Fund, but also businesses involved with food and its transportation, civil society groups concerned with food, transport and/or sustainability, and academics and other experts with an interest in these topics. The final reporting from the project is expected to be published in early summer 2008.

Contacts and more information

The project is led by FEC Research Fellow Paul Steedman - 01273 766649, . More detailed information on the project is available at , including the outputs from the first phase of the project: e-newsletters; the discussion paper; and a report of the expert stakeholder workshop held.