"Take stock, and focus on delivery"

As part of a new blog series in the run up to the election, FFCC Chief Exec Sue Pritchard tells us what she’d do if she was Food Systems Minister.

24th 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.

Sue Pritchard writes:

Over twenty years ago now, in our book called Leading Change, my co-authors and I wrote; Strategy without implementation is little more than deception. My mother would have put it even more plainly. “Fine words butter no parsnips”. So, this blog builds on the excellent suggestions from my colleagues Helen Browning and Dr David Pencheon, and my mother’s advice. If I was Food Systems Minister, my priority would be to take stock, and focus on delivery.

The last ten years have seen a plethora of reports and research proposing hundreds of recommendations. When FFCC started in 2017, we conducted a literature review and put out a call for ideas, crowdsourcing those we might have missed. We found over a thousand policy proposals – we are not short of ideas.

Even before Henry Dimbleby wrote his excellent magnum opus, food systems researchers and campaigners have been calling for systematic and joined up actions. Continuity matters. Honouring and building on what works is more likely to achieve tangible results, despite our whole political culture glorifying novelty in artificial four-year cycles. As Food Systems Minister I would bring a broad and inclusive group together and put all that work back on the table.

It’s a process we’ve been using with citizens in The Food Conversation, a series of ‘assemblies’ around the UK, asking ‘what do we really want from food’. We show citizens the breadth of research and recommendations and test their appetite for those policy proposals, most of which have largely been ‘slow tracked’ by recent governments. We use a device for working through the choices: do it (no regrets or obvious actions); test it (needs more research); debate it (complex/contested, needs public involvement). The list under JDI! would kick off my programme.

Taking stock also gives us a chance to assess what’s working, and what needs to change. Are things improving in the way policies intend – or are there unintended or unforeseen consequences arising? This question is especially important in farming policy. England’s ELM (Environmental Land Management) schemes have been years in the making, and much progress has been made. Now is the perfect time to conduct a farming policy impact assessment, called for by many farming and countryside groups. I would want to understand whether those schemes are adding up to the more resilient, safe, secure and – critically – viable food and farming sector they promised, and how they can be improved, against a balanced scorecard of metrics. For example, many farmers tell me that the schemes are currently too complicated, and this is a barrier to entry for all but the most committed (or well resourced) farmers. Streamlining the admin, and providing independent and strategic advice, in funded peer networks, is the most effective way of boosting uptake, so that more farmers can plan pathways to more sustainable businesses.

A radical and practical programme for change requires the support of a committed coalition of the willing, including businesses, farming and civil society organisations. “Whose voices count?” should be a central question of any incoming government.

A properly strategic, sectoral ‘industrial strategy’ for food and farming is essential. However, current sectoral initiatives, like the Food and Drink Sector Council, and the Farm to Fork summit are dominated by big business. Yet food and farming are full of small and medium sized enterprises – family farms, corner shops, local processors and makers, and the entrepreneurs in the new businesses who want to shape a healthier more sustainable future. Their voices are drowned out by the big players, who shape the food sector strategy (and interconnected policies in public health, research investment, land use and trade) to suit their own business goals. I’d work with departmental colleagues to ensure a more diverse range of voices had a place at the table, to balance discussions and shape a sector strategy fit for a more secure and resilient future. There are plenty of volunteers. For example, business movements like B Corp and the Better Business Act group all want to help.

Then I would make my colleagues in Treasury my new best friends. Whilst they’re planning the spending review in the Autumn, I would be making them a list of all the places where public money is being wasted or is propping up extractive businesses who pass the actual costs of their business model on to the taxpayer or on the environment. This exercise can also be quite liberating. Not only does it start to reveal who should be paying, and how much, to resolve the problems they create, but it also starts to show where effort is wasted, duplicated, or ineffective, and where better controls are needed. Working with colleagues in finance, risk and insurance, we can show how, through more effective collaboration and regulation, and a clear focus on food systems resilience and adaptation, people’s everyday lives and the country's economic prospects would improve.

Rebalancing power in the food system is also about working out what can be done best at local and regional scale. Communities and their local institutions are already working together on their food strategies – Birmingham, York, Sheffield, Northumberland, Cardiff, Glasgow, Bristol, Brighton and Hove – I could easily go on… What people in these places tell us they need are the right conditions, set nationally, to free them up to make the choices their citizens want, with the resources to back them. Better public procurement, sourcing local and sustainably produced food, and planning healthier high streets are two of the quick wins with wide ranging support from citizens.

In the same vein, food systems depend fundamentally on land use decisions, organised at a ‘larger than local’ scale. A land use decision making framework, which integrates both national and local ambitions, and – critically – involves communities in negotiating and mediating opportunities and choices will ultimately accelerate progress. I’d work with colleagues in the departments for housing and communities, innovation and technology, energy and net zero, and across local government to design and implement a land use decision making framework that delivers policy intentions.

Finally, I’d start to think about our place in the world - how we can reset the UK’s contribution to the international leadership so urgently needed right now. Food systems are at the nexus of critical global challenges. We have world-leading researchers and institutions who must be backed to play their part in setting a course for more sustainable food and farming for everyone. Our leadership should clearly show high and rising standards, on environmental sustainability, animal health and welfare, a coherent trade strategy, and practical commitment to the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals, to which the UK is committed.

Over the last twenty-odd years we have learned a lot about getting things done in government. When the delivery architectures – national, devolved and local - are aligned and enabled to work well together, we can be world-leading.

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