The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, a UK non-profit, is running the National Conversation About Food. Through this series of open dialogues, people across the UK are asked to share their thoughts on the food system. Findings from the first phase suggest public opinion is strongly in favour of more government action to improve the food system. Ursula Billington spoke to policy research lead Courtney Scott to find out more.
“Has anybody ever asked you what you really think about food?”
So began a new initiative, the National Conversation About Food, that seeks to find out how people on the ground would like to see food systems improved.
The project grew out of the People’s Plan for Nature which invited citizens to share recommendations to protect and restore the natural world. One suggestion that emerged was a public discussion exploring the impact of diet on nature.
The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC), a non-profit organisation focused on ‘radical but practical’ solutions to ecological and economic crises, set out to start this conversation.
One motivation, FFCC policy research lead Courtney Scott says, was to dismantle commonly-held beliefs that people only care about cheap food, and worry about ‘nanny state’ restrictions on food choices.
“Prevailing narratives around what people want from the food system were holding progress back on a number of fronts,” she says. “We wanted to challenge some of these and thought, we really need to dig into this in a robust way.”
Food System Dialogues
They began a series of open discussions in Birmingham and Cambridge on the topics of food, farming and land use.
“With a deliberative dialogue you have a chance to examine the evidence, ask questions and interrogate speakers – really get under the hood of the issue,” explains Courtney.
Participants were recruited through a randomly selected postcode lottery. Households usually underrepresented in these conversations were targeted, with 20% of participants selected from the most deprived areas. There was a diverse mix of people in the room, from students to carers, retirees and even a handful of agricultural workers.
Thought leaders from academia, the food industry, farming, wildlife, and social justice opened discussions by presenting the issues and potential policy interventions for reform.
The conversation that followed, and a national poll of over 2000 others across the UK, demonstrated the public support government intervention to improve the food system.
Courtney says one theme stood out in the findings. Participants identified issues with fairness across all elements of the food system:
“What surprised us was the level of agreement in the room around the principle of fairness. It was striking how unifying that was. Despite disagreements on particular bits of policy, the central core concept of wanting a fair food system really cut through.”
“It was a feeling that profits aren’t fairly shared across the food and farming supply chain, but also that it’s not fair for taxpayers to pick up the bill when run-off from industrial chicken production pollutes a river,” Courtney expands.
“Then, looking at food’s impact on health and society, that also didn’t feel fair where citizens can’t control what’s on the supermarket shelves or how healthy it is.
“The environment featured in terms of – in the service of trying to get cheap food for now, it’s actually damaging for future generations. We heard it throughout, no matter what topic we were looking at.”
The polling data overwhelmingly showed that most citizens want the government to take more action to improve the food system. 75% said the government is not doing enough to ensure everyone can afford healthy food, and 60-70% think they should do more to protect children from unhealthy food, stop farms releasing waste into water courses and minimise food’s environmental impact.
Respondents also overwhelmingly supported fines for polluting food producers, supporting farmers to transition to sustainable practices, and help for low-income households to access healthy food.
What struck researchers was how universal this feeling was. Rather than a partisan political issue, polling showed that people from across the political spectrum want government to make these changes.
Powerful food system actors
“The conversation turned towards government and business because of the discussion around where power sits in the food system. Who’s driving what’s happening, who has the power to change it?” says Courtney.
“People really felt that it’s not fair to put it solely on the shoulders of individual consumers. Citizens feel disempowered. They see government and business as the ones who have the potential to shift this. We need systemic actors to start leading the charge.
“Now it’s up to the FFCC to ensure the messages land with the right people who have the power to make decisions around the food system – government actors, civil servants, members of parliament.
“We’re also planning to help the citizens involved in the process to influence change, to push practical action on the ground locally and nationally.”
Shifting the Narrative
The FFCC will be rolling out the conversation across the UK’s four nations in 2024, but they’re aware that change won’t happen overnight.
“There are vested interests with a narrative that they’re putting out into the world, which is quite often something that we’re working up against when calling for more sustainable farming and healthier food.
“We’re trying to tip the balance of that predominant narrative. But narrative change is a long-term process, it takes years. We see this as the start of the drumbeat of change that will help lead to narratives shifting.”
So far, it has given the FFCC hope.
“We now have robust, credible evidence that people really deeply care and want change to happen,” says Courtney.
“It’s clear from this process that everyone wants healthy food that’s good for them and future generations in terms of protecting nature and biodiversity. The feeling that things need to change is incredibly universal.”
Participants were asked to create a manifesto for a new food system, and the words that emerged are a powerful call for change from the voices of people across the UK:
“We want urgent action that prioritises health and wellbeing over profit, through government policies which shift where power is in the food system to make it fairer for farmers and others across society.”
All that’s needed now is for the powers that be to start listening.