A single strategy on sustainable food should replace differing initiatives, says Tim Lang

They say it takes miles/hours to stop a tanker. It's the physics. But as a child going on boats to and from India (those were the days), I marvelled at how a combination of tugs, skills and leadership can in fact turn large ships on a sixpence. I see giant ships do it today. You plan to stop long before you get near rocks. You use maps, reverse gears, tugs and hawsers. There's much you can do, actually.

I was reminded of this by the NHS's new report: Sustainable Food: a Guide for Hospitals. It's a good read about the NHS' experience of trying to shift its £500m catering market towards sustainability.

So what's bothering me? The problem is, there is now an expanding library of such guides and initiatives. Some are in the public arena, some buried in contracts and specs. It's as though the task of delivering sustainable diets and food systems differs between hospitals, workplaces, prisons, nurseries and schools. And that retail systems differ from manufacturers' and caterers'. Or that NGOs live on different planets to farmers. Not true.

Surely we need one overall set of guidelines. Collaboration between state, civil society and industry bodies to deliver this is essential, but hasn't happened so far.

If ships can turn round, surely it is possible for the Department of Health to work with Defra; the FSA with the Environment Agency and English Nature; the Carbon Trust with Wrap; biodiversity people to be in the same room as the nutritionists. We can pool the expertise of academic number-crunchers with the managerial delivery of logistics geeks.

Put most people in a room and they agree. Sustainable diets mean health - nutrition, safety, acceptability, plus environment - things like reduced water and carbon, biodiversity protection, plus social values - like animal welfare, worker health & safety, minimum wage, notions of decency. Some bits of this mix are there already; others are trickier. But pooling and defining must start.

I repeat: tankers can stop, change direction, even turn round. The goal of reskilling us all to eat, want and get a sustainable diet is not beyond the wit of humanity.

What's needed is leadership, a map and persistence. The Cabinet Office Food Matters report laid out a core vision. I know Parliament is in turmoil over expenses but here is something politicians could kickstart now. n

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University.