Hungry for more

Why political leaders need to put food at the centre of their ambitions

18th June 2024

This is shaping up to be the most crucial election in my lifetime (and I'm pretty old). The world is becoming increasingly volatile, with a shift in the geopolitical tectonic plates, as well as a mounting climate and nature crisis. Global targets set a decade ago are not yet within reach, whilst the international consensus now looks increasingly fragile.

So, it is disappointing (if not unsurprising) that the most ambitious and comprehensive food, farming, and countryside policies come from the parties—according to current polling—who will be least likely to have an opportunity to deliver them.

What oil was to the 20th century, food and water will be for the 21st.  Just as we must rethink the fair and sustainable use of the earth's resources for energy, we must also rethink how we produce food and protect water for a fairer and more resilient future. Whether they have fully realised it or not, food and farming are at the heart of some of the most critical challenges facing the next government and will set the tone for parliaments beyond.

Governments need to take food systems seriously, recognising just how far food – what we grow and how we grow it, what we eat and how – shapes our nation's health, prosperity, and prospects.  We need a serious and comprehensive food and farming strategy, led by a minister with clout, that reaches across government departments. Only the Lib Dems and the Greens include this in their manifestos, even though the Conservatives commissioned a National Food Strategy - only to offer an "underwhelming” response to its recommendations.  That food and farming are dotted around Labour's manifesto, folded clunkily into other missions, suggests much more work will be needed in Defra's programme for government if and when that time comes.

But – to shore up the optimism we desperately need right now – let's focus on the common ground between the parties, where there is more consensus than you might expect at election time.

All parties intend to support farmers to accelerate the transition to nature-friendly and climate-safe farming. The Conservatives allocate an extra £1bn across the UK over the next parliament, whilst the Lib Dems propose spending an extra £1bn a year for England, outflanked only by the Greens, who would boost the farming transition budget to £4.5bn, consistent with the sums the green groups suggest will be needed.  Labour is silent on the numbers, instead promising to include this in the forthcoming spending review.

All parties propose to use the public procurement budget to support UK farmers and ensure healthy food, sustainably produced is on the plates in schools and hospitals. The devil is in the details, of course, and it is only the Lib Dems and Greens who deploy the magic "and” – local and produced to high standards of environmental sustainability, compared to the weaker "or” in the Conservatives and Labour pledges.

All parties recognise that the government needs to act to fix escalating and costly diet-related ill-health. As an absolute 'no brainer,' regulating the sale and advertising of unhealthy junk food, as well as improving the food environment in which people can make choices, is whole-heartedly supported by citizens. People support enforcing higher standards for food provided in public settings, especially for children. Any incoming government should welcome the social licence it has to act decisively on this and allow others - for example, city mayors - to enact further measures to grow the kinds of local and sustainable food systems citizens want.

Healthier, fairer, and more sustainable food and farming require a level playing field at home, in domestic markets, and in our international trade deals. Each party recognises the need to promote higher standards and greater fairness for consumers and farmers. The Lib Dems spell out the most specific policies often called for by campaigners to strengthen the Groceries Code Adjudicator and renegotiate unfair trade deals.

Finally, there is agreement on the need for a land use framework. So many government intentions will succeed or fail on the quality of land use decisions. Each party commits to introducing a land use framework. An effective multifunctional land use framework and increased powers for local institutions, offered to some extent in all manifestos, would involve citizens, alongside professionals, in negotiating and mediating land use decisions that meet government and community goals for climate and nature, energy, housing and infrastructure, food resilience and health.

Just as this election could get even more polarised, it is critical to bank those policies where there is a clear agreement between the political parties and, crucially, amongst citizens themselves. Our work in #TheFoodConversation curates all the policies with a remarkable, even unprecedented, consensus between people of all backgrounds and political allegiances. Citizens are less divided, more thoughtful, and more ambitious in their policy asks than many of the party manifestos. The #HopeFarmStatement, from business, farming organisations and green group leaders, backs them. It's time for the parties likely to form a government to catch up.