Years of demand in the UK for ever-cheaper food has had a hugely detrimental impact on our environment, the public's health and food security. This is not sustainable. In July, the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission produced its final report setting out a plan to radically transform the UK food and farming system so that it can be sustainable within 10 years. However, the global issue of food sustainability can also no longer be ignored. Each year, one third of food produced for human consumption ends up as food waste accounting for 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 when you consider the combined impact of the production, harvesting, transportation and packaging processes.

One of the main challenges faced by businesses in deciding what changes to implement to improve sustainability within the food industry is that official government policy and regulation can no longer solely be relied upon to steer the way. Other pressures are being brought to bear on companies in this sector like never before. Through litigation, NGO pressure, social media, shareholder activism and socio-political movements, such as Extinction Rebellion, civil society is influencing how companies are making decisions and taking action over and above that of the government.

This is challenging because the wave of pressure that can be created by civil society is unpredictable, and sometimes based on false or incomplete information. However, the expectation on businesses is nonetheless to react quickly to such pressure. The result of this is that well-intentioned investments, creating a net positive financial impact in the short term, could lead to stranded investments in the future should the government react differently and the regulatory landscape shift.

As businesses are forced to go beyond minimum legal requirements, careful consideration should be given to the longevity of their investments and what mitigation measures, such as contractual protections within the supply chain, are available to help increase the shelf life of that investment.

This article first appeared in in September 2019.

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