Last month FoodWasteNet (FWN) ran a 2-day conference in Nottingham looking at the valorisation of agricultural field waste. I chaired the first day and presented in the first session of the second day before having to dash down the road to Derby for an event organised by Stringer Together, the anti-slavery collaboration, of which more below. FWN is coming to the end of its 5-year life as a BBSRC-funded Network in Industrial Biology and Biotechnology (NIBB – one of 13) bringing together members from academia, industry, regulators and other groups to find ways use biotechnology to solve problems of waste within the food system, with a range of successor networks recently announced. One of these will be the Biomass Biorefinery Network (BBNet), with Professor Simon McQueen Mason, of the University of York, as the lead academic. Running from 2019 to 2024, BBNet incorporates elements of 3 of the Phase 1 NIBBs including FWN, and I’ll be involved on the Management Committee.
In this conference we departed a little from the usual technical format and featured speakers who brought a number of different perspectives. These included an economist, one of the IFSTAL team who discussed their approach to systems thinking and a long-time researcher who gave insights into the somewhat bumpy history of the topic in the UK. On day 2 we had Dan Crossley from the Food Ethics Council who gave a very thought-provoking talk on the ethical considerations of choices made during the research into and exploitation of waste streams. A central thrust of Dan’s talk was the need to consider any alternative uses to which such material could be put, which was a nice link back to the systems thinking espoused by IFSTAL. My contribution was to discuss some of the drivers for commercial organisations to engage, or not, with new technologies which sat alongside Dan’s contribution as framing for how new projects could fit most effectively into the overall agri-food system.
The Stronger Together conference looked back at the first 5 years of the organisation and forwards to the challenges of the future. Modern slavery remains a significant problem worldwide but, by its very nature, is challenging to get to grips with. Estimates for cases in the UK run from the official figure of around 13,000, which is bad enough in itself, up to an aggregate of as high as 500,000 based on the experience of the country’s police forces. Estimates for the number globally are around 40 million. Of course, not all of these cases are equal in the impact they have on victims, but that is hardly a consolation. The event was very interactive and included a question on the challenges to tackling modern slavery, with 3 groups’ responses shown below. Lack of resource was a common theme, which of course could be said for any number of other ESG issues.
The word slavery has connotations with imagery from the 18th and 19th centuries, and often appears in inverted commas in media reporting, which is not helpful to having it taken as seriously as is needed to tackle the issue. Maybe terms such as forced labour and trafficking should be more of the norm as they feel to have more contemporary resonance. Stronger Together was borne out of a recognition that organisations need to form partnerships up and down the supply chain and offers a range of excellent resources to help businesses address the challenges of modern slavery, including compliance with the UK’s Modern Slavery Act. With equivalent legislation recently arriving on the statute books in Australia, the global response may finally be catching up with the global challenge.
It may not seem that there is an obvious line to draw between food waste and modern slavery, but both are features of the global agri-food system. As I type this, the impact on movement of labour of the UK’s departure from the EU, now perhaps uncertain in itself, is far from clear. The government’s official advisory body on immigration, Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), has launched a consultation on occupations for which employers are struggling to recruit. In previous years the shortage occupation list has focused only on high skill roles, but MAC are now looking to receive information on skill shortages at nearly every skill level, in light of the uncertainty over what the post-Brexit immigration system will look like. This consultation presents the opportunity for labour providers, growers, food & drink manufacturers and logistics companies to demonstrate to government the skills shortages faced across a wide spectrum of roles. Farmers, growers and manufacturers are already experiencing difficulties in recruiting and there has been much talk of crops ‘rotting in the fields’. Leaving aside the hyperbole, if access to the right people is legitimised, some of the drivers for forced labour can be avoided.