“Make good food a right”

As part of a new blog series in the run up to the election, leading public health expert, Dr David Pencheon, tells us what he’d do if he were a Food Systems Minister.

21st June 2024

This week, as we countdown to the General Election, we are publishing 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 foundational 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.

Dr David Pencheon OBE writes:

When asked what one might do as a Food System Minister, I would emphasise this is an area covering interrelated complex systems such as farming, human behaviour, global economics, human, animal and planetary health, and of course food itself. I would therefore focus more on the word system than I would on the word food. It’s clear that the food system, and all that makes it safe, healthy, sustainable, and a rich part of social and cultural life, is so interwoven with everything else, it would be inadvisable to focus too narrowly on just food. The bigger picture stretches from rural economies, to childhood poverty, to global supply chains, to soil health, pollution, obesity, health, nature collapse and climate change.

Good food is an integral part of what it means to live a full life, not simply a fuel for living. And good food should certainly not be thought of as a luxury because only some can afford it. I would aim to create the conditions that make good food the norm, and good food a right.

My priorities would be:

Think and act broadly and strategically across government. Support the activities in other government departments which help improve food, soil, biodiversity, health, and connecting people with how food is grown and prepared, helping to develop a cross-government approach to good food. Normalise good healthy food at every opportunity where governments have direct and indirect control (local authorities, schools, prisons, health organisations, central government…). The government, either directly or indirectly is the biggest buyer of food in the country. We should show how food systems in the public sector can lead the way.

Identify and address the causes of the causes. For instance, many children grow up spending far too much time hungry, interfering (probably permanently) with their intellectual and social development, meaning they are unlikely to ever reach their potential. Supporting any action that addresses child poverty and life chances would be a particular focus. I would ensure the reintroduction of a comprehensive, universal SureStart programme - an example of a system wide intervention that will have many other benefits as well as making good food not just a possibility but a right. I would extend the availability of free school meals (both breakfast and lunch) universally and comprehensively, and link the national curriculum far more closely to the food served in school settings, so young people reconnect with food and how it is grown, produced, cooked and presented.

Reduce harm: polluter pays for nature destruction, pollution, and climate-related damage. I would address corporate greed and social irresponsibility, where shareholder profit is maximised at the expense of human, animal and planetary health. This would involve graduated levies on the most unhealthy food (particularly unnecessary and unhealthy levels of sugar, fat, salt, and ultra-processed foods), and make good food affordable for all through subsidies on fruit, vegetables, pulses and nuts (making this cost neutral if hypothecation were possible). If previous governments can afford to subsidise fossil fuels, future governments can afford to subsidise healthy foods. Make proven emission reductions and climate mitigation measures a compulsory requirement for all subsidies.

Ensure that good, sustainable food is affordable. Use all economic methods to ensure climate and nature sensitive methods of food production produce affordable food. Reducing and reversing this price differential stimulate more demand side pressure on the system – far more powerful and effective than the initial supply side interventions. Invest in, and incentivise diverse and resilient nature friendly food production more than carbon intensive that relies on herbicides, pesticides and fossil fuel hungry fertilisers, which lead to soil and biodiversity depletion, and polluting run-off. We cannot allow food growing to deplete soils and pollute rivers. We cannot afford to ignore what we are bequeathing future generations.

Scrutiny: learning and sharing from the best, outlawing and/or disincentivising the worst. Introduce systematic awards, scrutiny and support to innovative growers, suppliers, and outlets, allowing those who innovate to be acknowledged, allowing them to benchmark themselves positively against each other and against ambitious but achievable standards that steadily become more ambitious. Crucially, I would aim to spread generalisable and reproducible evidence and experiences quickly, seeking the reasons where innovation has been possible despite the system rather than because of the system. Support, catalyse and celebrate innovation by seeking out and removing as many historic barriers as possible.

Reconnect people to food and nature. Support schemes that are accessible to the public and allow a closer connection between place, people, communities, and food growing - allowing people to invest locally and engage directly with the production of good food – even if they have no garden or allotments of their own. Supporting Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) would be a good example. Make allotments much more numerous, available and affordable, and encourage the social and community benefits through expanding the number of community allotment and gardening schemes.

There is one last reason why, as Minister, I would ensure good food is affordable, available and healthy for people and planet. It is perhaps the most positive and practical way to engage people positively with the two most pressing existential crises: how we maintain a liveable planet for future generations, and how we learn to live with each other peacefully now. Migration, a feature of the human condition ever since we appeared on earth, constantly enriches and integrates the world - and there has been no better way to increase tolerance, diversity, and respect between peoples than to share good food.

Dr David Pencheon OBE is a UK trained doctor and was the founder Director of the Sustainable Development Unit [SDU] for NHS England and Public Health England, established in 2007. Read his full bio here.