Now’s the time to make food fair

Sue Pritchard on why politicians should listen closely to this unprecedented consensus from citizens, farmers, environment and business leaders.

3rd June 2024

For some things, the tough choices for government might not be that tough… Here’s why citizens and businesses back ambitious policies for food and farming.

Food matters, to everyone, everywhere. It is essential to our health and wellbeing and at the heart of our most important milestones in life. It brings families and communities together and nourishes our bodies and souls. In its journey from farm to fork, via processing and manufacturing, eating out and at home, it is central to the everyday economy, and to a resilient and prosperous future.

It is also at the nexus of some of the biggest challenges facing us in society. The way we grow and eat food is linked to climate change, nature loss, and the rapid rise in diet related ill health. Unsurprisingly then, it is the subject of increasing scrutiny. A growing plethora of studies and reports – including the government commissioned National Food Strategy – identify the connections between land use and the climate crisis; farming practices and harm to nature; junk food and ill health; the ’financialisation’ of food and the rise in food insecurity. Yet for decades, governments have underestimated their crucial role both in tackling unintended consequences and setting guardrails for the sector to secure public benefits, to protect and improve health, the climate, nature and ultimately, people’s life chances.  

In the face of all this evidence, most frustrating have been the excuses for government – and business – inaction. Putting all the responsibility back on to individuals, they have argued that consumers just need to make better choices. “No one wants a nanny state.” “It’s only the affluent middle classes who care about food.” “We can’t afford intervention in a cost-of-living crisis…”

And yet this was not what we hear in our work with communities in the four nations of the UK.

One of our wise Commissioners said, “if citizens knew what we know, what would they want us to do?” So, we set out to find out.

The Food Conversation is a national conversation asking people around the UK, “so what do we really want from food?” A first-of-its-kind project, it brings together citizens from all backgrounds, interests, and political allegiances, to meet in four sessions over four weeks. They hear from academic and professional experts, from public health, farming, food businesses, and environment. They look closely at reports produced over the last five to ten years or so, that curate the evidence, the arguments and the recommendations for action.

Turns out food policy matters to citizens too.

The Food Conversation reveals that citizens are willing to really listen to each other and to different perspectives, grapple with the difficult questions, to explore choices and trade-offs. They are more thoughtful, more respectful, more insightful, more generous than we are sometimes led to believe. And – to an extraordinary degree (according to pollsters More in Common) – they are less divided, and more consistent on food systems policies than almost any other policy question.

We tested a broad range of policy proposals with citizens, highlighting those which had already garnered a high degree of consensus among experts. Some recommendations elicit a degree of caution – recognising that more work might be needed to test consequences or to prepare the ground effectively with the public. But what is striking is just how clear the consensus is.

Citizens want to see healthy, sustainably produced food easily available for everyone, everywhere. They prioritise a focus on child health and nutrition and action to tackle the massive growth of ultra-processed food in UK diets. Policy proposals gaining substantial support include setting mandatory health and sustainability standards for food in schools, hospitals and other public institutions, banning the promotion of junk food to children, and banning junk food advertising across all platforms (astutely pointing out that children and young people are more likely to be watching social media than TV). They want to see specific support for the poor – like extending eligibility for healthy start vouchers for fruit, veg and milk.

Citizens want a fairer deal for farmers and growers, to enable the sector to shift quickly towards more sustainable, nature friendly and climate safe farming practices, with more investment in the best practices, and effectively regulating bad and outdated practices. They want to see tougher regulation that ensures fair dealing between retailers and other buyers, and farmers; and an ambitious plan to expand the production of the healthy food we need more of – fruit, veg, nuts and pulses. Citizens want better public procurement to work for farmers too, and they back proposals to invest in modern digital tools to enable smaller farmers and local businesses to supply their schools and hospitals with healthy food, sustainably grown.

Importantly citizens did not shy away from the discussions uppermost in politicians’ minds right now. How do we make this work when government has so many calls on the public finances? Citizens were startled to hear the cost of inaction to the country right now. From the cost of diet related ill health (some estimates now rising to £98bn across the NHS and the economy) through to trying to clean up rivers and restore nature, they are astonished that governments don’t do more to limit such damaging impacts on the public’s finances and on people’s quality of life. 

And let’s be clear. There is plenty of money in the food system – it’s just not in the right place and doing the right things. While many of us have been struggling with a grim rise in the cost of living, big food businesses have been doing very well thank you. Not for the likes of Tesco, Cargill or Coca-Cola the need to tighten belts and make hard choices. Tesco profits doubled to £2.7bn; Cargill turnover at $177bn dollars hit the highest in its 157-year history, and Coca-Cola just posted profits of $11.3bn in its first quarter this year. And yet these companies profit from a business model that shifts its true cost onto taxpayers. From cheap chicken (and its impacts on air, land, and water quality) to the ubiquitous fast food super-sized meal and fizzy pop (damaging health and increasing obesity especially in the young and poor), their eyewatering profits come at a serious cost.

When people see profits like these, juxtaposed with the shocking rises in diet related ill health exacerbated by the intense and clever marketing of junk food, they are outraged. Citizens want government to show a strong and clear lead and to rebalance a manifestly unfair system to one that is greener, healthier, fairer. One of their eminently sensible ideas calls for the creation of a Food Systems Minister. This new minister would have the authority to work across relevant departments – health, food and farming – to provide the right signals and the right level of leadership to create a joined-up food and farming strategy, and a commitment to devolve power and resources to the local institutions who can strengthen local food systems. Backed by an effective cross-cutting delivery mechanism, this minister would bring together departments to focus on their shared mission. In the first 100 days, they would lead the evaluation of the plethora of recent recommendations, prioritise the quick wins and plan a clear, coherent and ambitious programme over the next five years.

Less eye-catching, but nonetheless essential to a robust implementation plan, citizens support legally binding food systems targets, clear measurement and regulatory frameworks, judicious use of taxation on unhealthy food to boost investment in healthy food, and mandatory public reporting by food companies to help government assess the effectiveness of their policies. 

But the best thing is this. For those who might try to argue that citizens are naïve, or unrealistic, they now have business and civil society leaders' backing in the form of the Hope Farm Statement. Published just two weeks ago, this group of progressive leaders called for an ambitious national food and farming strategy, with six key recommendations, which back up the citizens’ calls to action.

This consensus for change is almost unprecedented. Citizens and business leaders alike want a level playing field. We join them in calling on a new government to act; to prioritise clear and effective leadership and joined up action to make food fair.

Sue Pritchard is the Chief Executive of the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission. Read her bio here.