On methodology

Seeing systems with citizens.

Sue Pritchard

4th January 2024

It was lovely to get a mention from Lord Hague in The Times over Christmas, in his piece on the value of involving citizens in complex policy questions. William calls for more citizen engagement with the difficult policy choices in front of us, describing how other countries have successfully deployed this approach. At the Food Farming and Countryside Commission, we agree, and this is why we are investing in The Food Conversation - a nationwide project that asks citizens a simple question: what do we really want from food? The Food Conversation covers food and its relationship to health, farming and land use, climate and nature, trade and social justice. We show how food is at the nexus of many social and environmental challenges, and explore, with citizens, the policy choices and options available.

As William notes, complex issues - like food - suffer from siloed research, where specialist academics, in separate departments, delve ever deeper into increasingly atomised topics. Few researchers take a ‘systems’ view, and look at the interconnections between topics, which can lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences. The growing concerns about the effects of the chemical cocktail in our environment is a good example, where plastics, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and the so-called ‘forever chemicals’ are combining in the environment to have disastrous impacts on our health and nature. These chemicals have passed tests for use in the lab, but they are rarely tested in real life, in relation to the use of other chemicals, and in the long term.

The same siloed thinking is prevalent in the policy environment. As Sir Michael Marmot said in the Guardian over Christmas, Britain’s hunger and malnutrition crisis could be solved by tackling poverty. Children are now admitted to hospital suffering from illnesses associated with deficiencies in micronutrients, leading to long term impacts to their health. In the UK, poverty is - counterintuitively - associated with obesity. According to The Food Foundation report, struggling families are buying poor quality, ultra processed food (UPFs), because it is generally cheaper, easily available, highly palatable - and heavily marketed. UPFs now form north of 65% of the average child’s diet, and more, in poor families. Sir Michael is renowned for his work on the social determinants of ill health: what this example starts to surface are the commercial determinants of ill health. Or to put it another way, some businesses profit from making and marketing products that make people sick – with the costs ultimately paid by taxpayers and the Treasury.

Which brings me to another response we got to William’s Times piece, from an academic who used X/Twitter to question our Food Conversation methodology. This poster expressed concern that our methodology was flawed* since we had not offered citizens what they call a ‘balanced view’ on the value of UPFs.

We designed our Food Conversations to explore food systems questions, with the help of an advisory panel, expert in food systems research and in qualitative research methods. In thinking about methodological choices, we are aware of the opportunities and constraints inherent in participatory processes and public dialogues and designed our process accordingly. We used the gold standard Sortition process to ensure we included a proper cross-section of the community. We commissioned Hopkins Van Mil and TPX Impact, both highly regarded, expert social researchers, specialising in public dialogues, to conduct them for us. The Conversations cover a lot of ground in four meetings over three weeks. Since we are concerned explicitly with food as a system, we drew largely on high quality food systems research - such as from International Panels of Experts, the National Food Strategy, The Food Foundation, Food Ethics Council, City University, IDDRI, Chatham House and others.

Food systems research covers a broad range of topics – how and where food is produced, impacts on climate and nature, on animal welfare and on people’s health and wellbeing. At FFCC, we locate ourselves in the ‘critical systems’ academic tradition – that is, we are systems thinkers who also talk about the political economy of food – things like, who holds power and who doesn’t, who takes the risks and who reaps the rewards. When I hear people say, “our food system is broken!” I point out it is working really well for some businesses.

So, our methodology takes a transdisciplinary approach. Transdisciplinary research brings together researchers from different disciplines to work together to generate new insights. It also asks deeper questions, about the role of science, the values and assumptions all researchers bring to their work, how knowledge is produced, and how it is put to use in real world situations. This is particularly important, given the number of times “the science” is used in lobbying for policy choices. Why does this matter? Let’s take an example from our critic’s social media feed. “Why” he writes “do some people believe that giving people freedom is a bad thing. We need to provide information and opportunities - but everyone should be allowed to decide for themselves.”

Some might say this is an innocuous statement - who doesn’t want people to have freedom? But a transdisciplinary approach would point out that it’s not quite as simple as that; citizens have unequal access to balanced information; huge sums are spent in advertising and marketing junk food, compared to the modest amounts spent on healthy eating campaigns; the food industry is a substantial funder of academic research intended to develop and benefit its businesses; and ‘freedom’ is a common trope (eg “no one wants a nanny state…”) often utilised by the powerful to shape a narrative that enables businesses and governments to avoid discussion about acting in the public interest.

Food systems are at the heart of critical challenges in front of us and the independent global consensus is that they need to change, from farm to fork. However, this global consensus is being challenged and undermined by industry-funded research and lobbying. Marion Nestle describes the problem in her book: Unsavory Truth – how food companies skew the science of what we eat. She says there is an enormous body of evidence consistently showing that industry-funded research generally yields results that favour the sponsor’s interests. Industry funding influences the framing of the research questions, the outcomes and the interpretation of the results. Worryingly, she also finds that recipients of industry funding do not recognize this influence, do not intend to be influenced, and deny the influence (“science is science”). However, Marion Nestle says, denial of influence contradicts evidence to the contrary.

Remember the recent controversy over Nestlé’s Kit Kat breakfast cereal, with its claim to be ‘nutritious’, due to the added B vitamins? Nestlé removed that claim from the packet, following widespread complaints. This is the real-world impact of confusing citizens with spurious claims, marketing unhealthy food with misleading information. We cover all these issues in The Food Conversation, and we find that, given a range of information and time to consider it, citizens are willing and able to understand the complex issues, the trade-offs, and the choices – as William described so well in his article.

Yet drawing attention to the way information, power and resources are held and deployed in global food systems inevitably triggers responses. Our whole purpose, both at FFCC and in The Food Conversation, is to bring this to light, and to give citizens the chance to talk about it. We’ll be doing a lot more through 2024.

*NB We’ve offered our critic the opportunity to contribute to the next phase of the Food Conversation, but as yet, he has not responded to this offer.