Rathbone Greenbank’s 25th annual Investor Day

Rathbone Greenbank Investments hosted its 25th annual Investor Day on the topic of how to build a healthier food system, with a particular focus on the UK. 

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Food and drink manufacturers contribute more to the UK economy than all other manufacturing sectors combined. They represent around 5% of GDP and employ over 4 million people throughout their production and supply services. However, our food system also contributes significantly to climate change, widespread biodiversity loss and dietary ill health and millions are experiencing increased food insecurity through the cost-of-living crisis. With mounting social and environmental pressures and escalating costs for businesses and public health services, we must transform how we produce and eat our food.

For Professor Corinna Hawkes, director of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, our commitment to healthy eating is often frustrated by time constraints, domestic circumstances and income pressures. Despite a majority of people indicating that healthcare is a key food shopping priority, the reality is that most are failing to meet dietary recommendations – less than 0.1% of the UK population fully meet the recommendations set out in the government’s Eatwell Guide. Ultra-processed foods which contribute to weight gain make up more than half of the total calorie intake for UK adults, and our obesity rate is among the highest in Europe. Diet-related diseases also disproportionately affect poorer consumers.

Improving the nation’s diet means targeting the systemic social disadvantages and inequalities obstructing the change we need to see. The Centre for Food Policy and its partners employs a people-centric approach to increase food literacy and trust in healthy choices through education and create an environment where social networks and institutions focus on widely advertised and affordably priced healthy foods.

Judith Batchelar OBE of Food Matters International argues that our current food system cannot sustainably meet the demands of a growing global population. A lack of understanding and expert consensus in the ways food systems function, an inability to agree on common goals, and concerns about exploring solutions in a competitive market are all barriers to the development of an enabling environment for systemic change. Understanding what’s simultaneously good for human and planetary health is complicated and contentious, but an overview of global food production shows that we’re producing too much of what we don’t need – not enough of the right foods are produced to support a global shift to high quality, nutrient-rich diets. Food systems are also highly fragmented and highly consolidated in different regions of the world which complicates efforts to align production with dietary recommendations.

Systemic change requires systemic business cases that consider total impacts, opportunities and risks for all stakeholders, and a comprehensive understanding of synergies and trade-offs to help us optimise food systems. Ambitious targets, mandatory reporting and collaborative action at scale are key factors in bridging the gap between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’. Additionally, connecting business cases along these lines makes the investment opportunity and the value of social and environmental returns much clearer. The World Benchmarking Alliance’s Food and Agriculture Benchmark, which measures and ranks the performance of companies transforming global food systems, is also something investors can access for data on sustainable practices.

Henry Dimbleby’s government-commissioned National Food Strategy explores how UK food systems could deliver nutritious, affordable foods and improve outcomes for the environment and public health. Since 1945, food production has increased on an unprecedented scale to defy post-war predictions of global starvation. The methods developed to achieve this, however, are causing significant environmental and social harms – the modern food system is both a miracle and a disaster. We’re producing 1.7 times the world’s calorie needs and it’s estimated that by 2035, more will be spent on treating type 2 diabetes than all cancers combined.

The Strategy identified two food system feedback loops that need breaking with government support. One is the ‘junk food cycle’ where our appetite for unhealthy foods is encouraged and supported by commercial drivers. The other is the ‘invisibility of nature’ where definitions of human and economic achievement ignore and actively harm natural systems. We must therefore force change in commercial drivers, support the diets of the less affluent, improve interactions between food systems and nature, and redefine our food cultures.

While the recent Government response to the Strategy’s environmental and health recommendations has been limited, the government has nevertheless become the first worldwide to commit to producing a restorative land use framework by 2023. A data program is also being created to define and measure the food system’s environmental impacts which will aid the development of a mandatory reporting framework.

Sophie Lawrence, Greenbank’s stewardship and engagement lead outlined the business case for investor action and provided an overview of Greenbank’s long history of collaborative engagement on health and nutrition, including its leadership of investor dialogue with UK policymakers in response to the National Food Strategy.

"The Greenbank-led Investor Coalition on UK Food Policy brought together 23 investors representing over £6 trillion of assets to support efforts to introduce mandatory reporting by food sector companies on their products, sales and food waste."

Health and nutrition is becoming a key stewardship theme for investors more aware of the benefits of good health to the wider economy. The Greenbank-led Investor Coalition on UK Food Policy brought together 23 investors representing over £6 trillion of assets to support efforts to introduce mandatory reporting by food sector companies on their products, sales and food waste. The coalition drafted a letter to the government pledging its support for reporting recommendations and outlining the key risks and opportunities for the food sector. In response, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs agreed that the investor perspective would be crucial in understanding how mandatory reporting could incentivise best practice and help determine the correct course for future regulation. The coalition continues to engage with the UK Government and is a member of the recently announced Food Data Transparency Partnership.

Watch the Rathbone Greenbank 25th annual Investor Day.