A citizen call to action on food

Dr Courtney Scott on why it's time to have a national conversation about our food system.

10th May 2023

#TheFoodConversation has begun. Visit the website for more information, as well as blogs, films and stories from citizens and experts.

The People’s Plan for Nature (PPFN) is a tour de force of citizens’ views on how we can protect our natural world. As food and farming are crucial to restoring nature and climate, it also offers really important insights into citizen views on food and farming.

Eight of the 26 Calls to Action in the PPFN are directly related to food and farming. Actions in the areas of vision, leadership, and regulation would also apply to the food system. And the food system would need to change if many of the calls about oceans, rivers, and nature are to be realised.

Citizens want and expect change to be led by government and business

More than half of the People’s Assembly (53 of 103 people) considered overhauling farming subsidies to be a “top 10” urgent and influential action. This is their call to action with the second highest level of support – topped only by a recommendation that all commercial and policy decisions assess the impacts on nature (which would also mean doing so in the food system).

It’s not just about what needs to change, but the PPFN also tells us a lot about who citizens think should be driving change – most of the actions proposed in the PPFN are focused on change from government and business. This means that when citizens are informed about the damage happening in our natural world, they not only want and demand change within the food and farming system, but they want (and expect) that change to be led by government and business.

Simplistic narratives about food hold back action ... do citizens really want a “cheap” food system?

And yet, even though food is so central to our lives (of all the bits of the economy, we really can’t do without food), the urgent policy changes needed to ensure everyone has enough healthy and sustainably produced food are getting little high-level political attention right now.

So what is driving this lack of attention? We think that part of the reason for the lack of meaningful political action on food is that simplistic narratives about food hold back action. We often hear that citizens demand perfectly round tomatoes in January, or that citizens only want “cheap” food, and that this is why policy makers and businesses can’t take significant steps to address the health, climate and nature crises arising from the food system. But, do citizens really want a “cheap” food system? Or do people want government and businesses to prioritise citizens’ health and the environment?

If citizens knew that there are many well-evidenced policies and practices which could improve the food system – and in turn health, climate and nature – but government and business aren’t acting on them, what would they say? How would they react if politicians or businesses were to really start to drive towards a different version of the future?

This summer, we will ask citizens directly: what do we really want from food?

These questions are especially relevant since the People’s Plan for Nature recommended a national conversation on diet. We think this is very timely – and have been thinking along similar lines for quite some time – and we are going to go a step further and have a conversation with citizens about how the food system is driving our diets. Often when people think about food they think about their own diets, but this reinforces the ‘personal responsibility’ frame about food action. A wider conversation about food (rather than diet) will bring in the opportunity to shine a light on who holds the power to change the system more broadly.

And so, starting this summer, we will ask citizens directly: what do we really want from food? We’ll share their answers with policymakers and businesses in the run up to the general election next year – and we think they might be surprised by what they hear.

Dr Courtney Scott is Head of Research & Policy at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. Full bio