Who does the food system serve?

Beth Bell and Dan Crossley on why what citizens demand from their food systems is unignorable for those making policy.

28th June 2023

The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission’s National Conversation is a timely and necessary intervention which will gather insight, ideas and solutions from citizens, alongside amplifying their voices so we can say with confidence what citizens demand from their food systems - making this unignorable for those making policy.

Suspicious. That’s one way to summarise many people’s feelings towards the traditional ‘powers that be’ at the moment. Elvis Presley was right to say that “we can't build our dreams on suspicious minds”. Many of us have dreams or visions of what we’d like our food system - and society - to look like in the future. No one’s dream is for food banks to proliferate, wages to be too low to allow people a decent life, or crops to rot in the fields.

Arguably, what’s even more of an issue than people’s low trust in institutions, is the opposite - institutions not trusting people. Suspicion is a two-way street.

We must recognise that we all have inquisitive, creative, compassionate minds. Opening up conversations allows us to connect with our power to change things for the better. But that power is currently caught in a trap - a consumerist trap.

For too long, our agency has been limited to ‘consumer power’, where it’s the size of our wallets that dictates whether we can access the things we need to sustain a good life. There has been too much emphasis and onus on individuals making the ‘right choices’ in order to build better food systems, ignoring the reality that many individuals cannot afford to make the right choices. Not only that - the food environment surrounding us is deliberately geared to promote certain - unhealthy, unsustainable - foods and drinks. Our ‘choices’ are not real choices.

Beyond the fallacy of ‘consumer power’ and ‘voting with our wallets’, the current system denies citizens any other meaningful opportunities to participate in decision-making and shape the future.

This is bad for everyone - not just citizens, but businesses and the powers that be.

Firstly, failing to involve people seriously reduces the chances of the public buying into an idea. The recent push on gene edited food and feed from the UK government is looking like it will be a classic case in point. There was a rush to push through legislation via the Genetic Technologies Act, but the gene editing argument put forward was one-sided, while citizen and civil society concerns were brushed aside. It’s still too early to say definitively, but we suspect public acceptance and buy-in will be a challenge going forward.

Locking citizens out of the conversation also leaves us with often misplaced presumptions about what people really want from food. A classic, prevailing narrative is that people will only accept perfectly formed vegetables. Does this really ring true? Similarly is the prevailing wisdom that people want cheap food and don’t care about seasonality. Major corporations will use these narratives to justify ecologically-damaging activities, in the name of ‘consumer demand’.

But what is ‘demand’ and ‘choice’ in a food environment that’s almost entirely created without citizens’ input?

Recent citizen engagement demonstrates that these cynical, outdated beliefs about people don’t stack up. Citizens really do support change for the good of the planet, when given the opportunity to discuss issues in more depth - and the opportunity to be heard.

When we involve more people in a conversation, we build more nuanced narratives about the food system - and generate more ideas about how to make it better. Why would we not want to tap into the diversity of experiences, values and insights that the UK public holds? We need the creativity that people bring. In a complex system, we need a diversity of solutions.

Beyond the somewhat instrumental arguments surrounding citizen buy-in and idea-generation, there is a bigger question. It’s about the intrinsic value of people. Who does the system serve, if not people? No-one should be questioning why we should listen to citizens. Instead we should be asking, why on earth haven’t we done this before? It’s staggering that citizen engagement is regarded as a somehow novel, hip, or slightly leftfield idea. People are at the heart of the food system - engaging with them should not be a nice, optional ‘add-on’.

Some people will say that we’ve done enough talking, we just need to get on with it rather than holding a national conversation. But get on with what? The same actions that have created a broken system? We at the Food Ethics Council don’t see conversation and action as mutually exclusive.

Fostering better conversations and greater opportunities for people to participate is likely to lead to less suspicion and instead to better decisions, fairer processes, bolder actions and kinder outcomes.

Decisions about food have huge impacts, positive and negative, both within our local communities and across the globe. Food is a tangible entry point into so many environmental and social issues facing us today. Not only that - food sustains life. It deserves a national conversation. If institutions believe in people, those institutions themselves will reap the rewards.

Beth Bell and Dan Crossley are the Food Citizenship Lead and Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council. Full bios