“Governments must set the playing field”

As part of a new blog series in the run up to the election, Helen Browning OBE tells us what she’d do if she were a Food Systems Minister.

20th June 2024

As we countdown to the General Election, we have pulled together a short series of blogs focussing on the realities of delivery in government.  In #TheFoodConversation with citizens across the UK, there is one idea that crops up again and again. Without prompting, citizens often come up with the idea of appointing a Food Systems Minister. They argue that a Food Systems Minister could bring together different parts of government and signal the importance of food as a central element of our economy.

We’ve asked some of the people in our network, experts in food and farming, public health and the environment, and – crucially – policy delivery, to take this idea one step further and imagine what they would do if they were Food Systems Minister.

Helen Browning OBE writes:

If I were food system minister, I’d quickly turn to Henry Dimbleby’s food plan, and get on with implementing it. It’s a very well evidenced piece of work, with widescale support across the spectrum of civil society, business and farmers, so allowing rapid action that would move the dial in the right direction. The recommendations on school food and food education especially resonate, as does the call, which the FFCC has led, for a Land Use Framework, enabling communities to get involved with decisions about their locality within a set of principles which help reconcile and optimise for all the competing requirements we have of our countryside.

Then I’d use every effort to work with colleagues across government, to make the case for an economic framework that would allow money to be generated from penalising the bad things through ‘polluter pays’, and re-investing the cash in the assets and initiatives that would ensure that those on low incomes can have access to healthy and sustainable diets, and that the next generation to have the same or better opportunities that we have. An example of this is Ultra Processed foods. Make ‘junk foods’ more expensive and use the income to support fresh wholefoods in schools and other public settings. Another is agricultural and sewage pollution; the water companies and, after a period of grace and support to upgrade or transition to different systems, the farming sector too, must pay for the pollution being flushed into our waterways, and the money used to invest in a cleaner, greener agriculture, so that organic, regenerative, nature positive farming becomes more the norm.

Progressive businesses are clear that they need a well thought through regulatory pathway, that they are confident will be implemented. Too often, governments have rowed back on their legislative commitments, leaving those who have taken action so ahead of the curve that they are uncompetitive. So rather than make blithe commitments, only to realise they are unfeasible, better to ensure the plans are sound, then give no ground on implementation. Governments must set the playing field so that it’s a no brainer for businesses to do the right things.

The rules for the private capital that is seeking to flow into natural capital and carbon markets need setting clearly too. There’s good work ongoing in this area, but it needs urgent progression to facilitate investment and ensure that cowboys don’t take advantage of this fast moving and somewhat opaque space. Once it’s established what private finance will pay for, then a long-term commitment should be made from the public sector into farming and nature. Land managers need to take a long-term view, they must be confident to invest, to able to afford to try new approaches, so they must be clear about the goals and the economic routes to get there.

Climate change is set to wreak havoc on our food systems. As well as doing all we can to mitigate this threat, we must help farmers and the food sector adapt to it too. Again, this requires forward thinking and planning, an emphasis on diversity, in what we grow, who grows it, in how and where we grow it. Can we move to more perennial crops, design more resilient landscapes, invest in on farm reservoirs and rain harvesting, make the most of manures and renewable resources to generate power? What species of trees and crops will be suitable for our future climate, and how to we prevent the animal diseases, especially zoonotic ones, that are already a major threat, but may be exacerbated by climate shifts? How do we spread our risk through fair and reciprocal trading relationships around the globe, and through a balance of protected and field-based cropping?

All of this will require research, and I’d like to see more of this led by farmers, who are after all, the best innovators and the ones who will need to put it into practice. And it will require practical, skilled people, rewarded fairly, both on our farms and in the supply chain. I’d be keen to explore the idea of national service into farming, food and nature, to give many more people from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to develop land and food-based skills.

Ultimately, our food system is us. We have taken it for granted, but that is foolhardy now. We all have a stake in an ethical food future, one that can deliver our needs without blowing up the planet. We can’t duck the issues, but we can have an inclusive conversation, a collective plan, that allows everyone, from businesses to farmers to school cooks to individuals, to feel motivated and able to play their part. This job won’t be easy, but it’s probably the most important one in government.

Helen Browning OBE is Chief Executive of the Soil Association and an FFCC Commissioner. Read her bio here.