How radical do you want to be, PM?

By Sue Pritchard

17th December 2019

Reading the papers this weekend, there are many people poring over the bones of the last few months and speculating about the future. Meanwhile, we are still in the grip of climate and nature emergencies, which need us to look forward – and fast. How will this new Government, liberated from its internecine arguments, choose to act on the most pressing problems that the UK (and the planet) faces? Even those who know him well, wonder, who will Boris Johnson choose to be, in this most privileged of places, a Prime Minister with a massive majority?

The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission is unsurprisingly interested in the answer to these questions, through the lens of our particular mandate. How will we shift from an industrialised and globalised food and farming system, that has come to harm people and planet, to a safer and sustainable food system, that restores health and wellbeing, acts on the climate emergency and regenerates nature and thriving rural communities?

The disappointing output from COP25 in Madrid demonstrates that turning fine words into serious actions remains incredibly difficult. The EU and the Small Island Nations (most at risk of sea level rises through global warming) lost out to the US, Brazil and Australia, who do not want to curb their emissions at the pace needed. The UK is hosting COP26 in Glasgow next year, the ‘super year’, so called, since if we haven’t made the substantial and far reaching changes by end of 2020, we will not be able to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees (and on current form we will not).

That Johnson’s campaign was well supported by climate deniers, hedge funds and fossil fuel companies should give us serious pause. But on the other hand, his close family and friends are long standing and committed green activists, long before it became de rigeur to be so. And he is now in a position to be as bold, as radical and as transformative as the situation demands.

The Prime Minister and his advisers are planning root and branch transformations in the machinery of government. Colleagues elsewhere have been quick off the mark to set out what’s important – reinstating and improving the Agriculture and Environment Bills are the high on the list.

Here’s my pitch (and the two of the things FFCC will focus on next).

  1. The UK must take up and strengthen its global leadership in the international gatherings planned for 2020, where governments will assess progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, and convene in conferences on climate change in Glasgow, on biodiversity in Beijing and on the food system, in Rome in 2021. These critical international gatherings need effective, courageous and collective leadership; first, to make the connections between them, to stop debates becoming ever more siloed; second, and critically, to drive the joined-up actions beyond them. Many of these actions depend upon changing the practices of a very small number of powerful, global mega businesses, who benefit from industrialised agriculture, and the financialisation of the food sector. FFCC is partnering with the Food and Land Use Coalition, and with other progressive international alliances, to re-imagine the economics of the global food system, with agroecology at the heart of a just rural transition, restoring the health of people and nature. Strong leadership from the UK government, backed by serious and practical actions will bolster global courage to act. And the truth is, good businesses wants government to act. ‘Less and better regulation’ - like raising the legislative baseline for environment and nature protection – signals government’s support for businesses to move together. They can bring their shareholders with them, and lessening the risk of being undercut by bad businesses, those who externalise their impacts onto the tax-paying public and pocket the profits for themselves.
  2. Meanwhile, people in communities around the UK have to learn how to mitigate and adapt to the changes that are already happening. Extreme weather events are now more common and more extreme; changing ecosystems are affecting the basic building blocks of life – water, food, energy. We need all our imagination and creativity to build more resilient communities, that can still flourish in decades to come. As luck would have it, Dominic Cummings seems to agree with us that what’s needed is rapid decentralisation of resources. For what will work in Somerset or the Fens, will be radically different to what is needed in Sedgefield or Stroud. In Madrid this weekend, the small island nations understood exactly the scale of the climate emergency; in the UK, communities, and the institutions that serve them, have barely had the bandwidth to consider the scale of the adaptation needed. We’ve already heard that this new government will invest in infrastructure to boost the UK economy. A truly far-sighted government will invest in the greening infrastructure needed to help communities meet the adaptation challenge, and not just those high-profile, high-cost, high-risk projects – which often just boost the coffers of a small number of infrastructure businesses. Decarbonising housing and transport, as well as investing in better community health and care services, and local food systems – the ‘infrastructures’ close to people’s everyday lives. Swift and generous devolution of resources, building civic and institutional capacity, to work out what’s needed in the different places of the UK, to make a plan, backed up with the resources to act – this would be a truly radical and transformative act – and just what’s needed in the months to come. And whilst this new government will be keen to reward the northern post-industrial communities who have ‘lent’ the Conservatives their votes, traditional conservative rural communities must not be forgotten, getting the investment they need, in broadband, public transport and affordable housing, to become a powerhouse for a fair and green economy.

Prime Minister Johnson, this is a once in a generation chance to take up the leadership needed; on, the global stage, upholding and accelerating strong and effective international frameworks, to protect the planet and all its peoples; and at home, building strong, healthy and resilient communities, with the resources they need to shape their futures. Who will you choose to be?

Sue Pritchard is Chief Executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

Note: this blog was originally published on the RSA website (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which hosted the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission between November 2017-April 2020.