Jaded and disempowered by report after report explaining how ‘broken’ our food systems are without giving any sense of ‘how’ we can move forward? Fear not. The RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission’s new report should go to the top of the ‘read and act on’ pile. The ‘Our Future in the Land’ report is the result of a creative twenty-month process. If you’re interested in accelerating the shift to fair food systems for all, I’d strongly encourage you to not just read the report, but to take it seriously and to act on it.
Here are ten reasons why:
1. It’s pradical
Before you hit ctrl + f on the report or pick up a dictionary, ‘pradical’ is a word I made up. The point is that the Commission set out to be both ‘practical and radical’ in its proposals and my take is that it has achieved that balance pretty well. There are 15 main recommendations and lots of other ideas in there, categorised using a helpful framework the Commission has adopted from elsewhere, i.e. ‘do it’, ‘test it’ and ‘debate it’.
2. It bangs the drum at a critical time
When you hear that one of the recommendations is “reconnecting people and nature to boost health and wellbeing”, your might think the report is a rehash of previous food system reports like the 2002 ‘Curry Commission’, whose main theme was the need for ‘reconnection’. However, those involved in the Commission have worked hard to build on previous reviews, not simply to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes drums need banging until people start paying attention. Think of the many years that groups have been calling for action on climate change and how the warnings are only now starting to be heeded. Whilst the report does make some recommendations that have been raised before – from reconnection to better public procurement – this is not a case of unnecessary regurgitation. The ‘asks’ are more nuanced now, with the situation and time feeling riper for change.
3. It has fresh ideas – from beetroot bonds to banks and bikes
There is lots in the report that feels genuinely new and exciting – fresh ideas, a refreshing process and an inclusive tone. The spirit in which the Commission process has been done shines through in the tone and language of the report, which rightly stresses the vital role that farmers have – and how farming should be a (positive) ‘force for change’.
One idea that jumps out is that of beetroot bonds, where the suggestion is that “Every person in the UK, adult and child, would receive a Beetroot Bond with a monthly dividend to spend on fresh food.” Whilst that’s interesting, it’s the second part that for me has even greater potential: “The Beetroot Bonds would also be shares in your local food system. Each person would be able to use their Beetroot ‘shares’ (and the shares of their dependents) to vote on local food policy.”.
There are other new ideas too, such as a National Agroecology Development Bank that would “finance commercial land use and food production projects that benefit ecology, health and communities” and a National Nature Service, to name just two.
The process to get to the outputs felt fresh too. This included a UK bike tour, gathering insights and stories from those in the countryside – crucially going to where people and communities are.
4. It asks for more nuts
The report makes a serious call for “growing UK supply of fruit, veg, nuts and pulses, and products from UK sustainable agriculture”, which goes beyond the half-hearted ‘we need more fruit and veg’ pleas of the past. On top of the existing, powerful Peas Please campaign, perhaps we also need a concerted Pulses Please and Nuts Now campaign?
5. It calls for innovation by farmers not innovation for farmers.
The report promotes innovation by farmers in order to unleash a fourth agricultural revolution. You may have heard ‘fourth agricultural revolution’ talk before, but what’s encouraging is that the Commission is not simply thinking of robotics and big data. The report argues that “the revolution needs to be social and economic as well as technical. Giving farmers and other citizens a greater say in the development and use of technology recognises that they are ethical and social considerations”. Hear, hear. On the subject of research and innovation, we are pleased to see our very own ‘For whom: questioning the food and farming research agenda’ publication cited in the report.
6. It recognises the power of treating people as ‘citizens’
The RSA Commission defaults to talking of people as ‘citizens’ rather than ‘consumers’. For the record, the Curry Commission report had 133 references to ‘consumers’, while the RSA Commission has just four. Shifting from consumerist to citizen mindsets involves more than just replacing one word with another. However, the good thing about this RSA Commission process is that it does more than that. It has sought to embrace a citizenship approach, e.g. on the already-mentioned bike tour and through encouraging a participatory, rather than top-down, approach.
The tone is set by the last two sentences of Ian Cheshire’s foreword, where he says “We invite you to join us on this mission. Our future is in our hands.” It’s about ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ can do, rather than a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ approach. We’d like to think that our food citizenship work – inspired by the New Citizenship Project – is starting to have an impact!
7. It breaks down conventional siloes
The report dares to look beyond the conventional boundaries of the food system. For example, it ventures into housing by recommending “Sustainable solutions to meet our housing need”. The Commission is absolutely right to consider the interlinkages between lack of affordable housing, poverty and isolation. The report also goes beyond one aspect of farmer support – subsidies – and instead looks at the broader picture of where the money goes. Overall, it does a very good job of integrating health, agricultural, food, environmental, social and rural concerns.
8. It has a brilliant accompanying short film
No long explanation is needed for this one. One quote from the film says enough: “I’m a farmer and I can’t afford to buy the food I produce. How ridiculous is that?” Watch the 12-minute film called ‘God’s Lone Country’ here.
9. It considers realistic long-term change
It calls for a ‘transition’, which in itself is a really important word and demonstrates that Commissioners do not naively expect everyone to be able to flick a switch overnight to a new way of working and living. It also mentions some of the inspiring work done in other countries to “think more systemically about the foundational principles on which society can prosper” in the long-term, such as the Happiness Index in Bhutan, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in Wales and the New Zealand Treasury’s new Living Standards Framework to improve wellbeing.
10. It inspires us to act
We at the Food Ethics Council are inspired to act. We hope you will be too. We are already doing (at least) two things that build directly off the Commission’s work.
Firstly, we are planning an exciting project on the ‘livestock transition’ that builds off the call in the report for a ten-year transition plan for sustainable farming by 2030. This will involve working with farmers and others to establish what ethical business models for livestock might look like in the medium to long-term. Watch this space for more details.
Secondly, at our next Food Policy on Trial event in autumn 2019, we are testing out a specific idea mentioned in the report, namely considering plain packaging (a la cigarettes) on the unhealthiest food and drink products in the UK. This will be part of a bigger discussion exploring proposed radical restrictions on food advertising of certain types of food. We are not coming in with a pre-defined view either way, as this is firmly in the ‘debate it’ category.
So, a perfect process and a perfect report? No, of course not. There will be criticisms including areas the Commission could or should have covered in more depth. To give just three examples, I’d like to have seen greater mention of aquaculture and/ or wild fish; of the Right to Food; and of supporting good infant nutrition and breastfeeding (the ultimate healthy, sustainable diet?). However, I realise that some of these will have been left out to keep the scope manageable and avoid the final report being too long. There are more than enough strong recommendations in the report to be getting behind.
In the immediate aftermath of the EU Referendum vote, lots of food and farming policy ideas were being bandied around – some sensible and some not so sensible. I’m glad the Commissioners paused to establish a good process, remained level-headed, and came up with an excellent set of outputs. They have showed the power of ‘pause, think, act’.
Let’s get behind the best ideas and turn them into a reality. Beetroot bond anyone?
Disclaimer: One of our Council members, Helen Browning, was a Commissioner. I myself took part in some of the Commission workshops, including presenting at one of them, but I had no formal involvement with the Commission. This is my own mini analysis based on an initial read of the Commission’s report. I’d love to hear your views below.
Dan Crossley, Executive Director, Food Ethics Council