Information, food labels, yawn…. We at the Food Ethics Council have long argued that ‘informing’ people is not enough. We’ve also argued that if we are waiting for all citizens to be fully informed about the food they eat (its provenance, health, environmental impacts, animal welfare credentials, methods of production….), then we’re in for a long wait – too long a wait, given the urgency of challenges facing society and the planet. Hence the Food Ethics Council wants bolder intervention from government and food companies to ensure people have ‘better’ (more sustainable, fairer, healthier) sets of food choices to begin with.
 
That doesn’t mean though that everyone should give up on learning more about their food in order to be able to make informed (‘wiser’?) choices. Hence, I was pleased to be on the advisory group for the Which? and Government Office for Science’s ‘public dialogue on food system challenges and possible solutions’ – just published and available here.
 
The research showed that those members of the general public who took part were generally aware of rising obesity and health issues. However they were “shocked to hear about the impact of food production on climate change, the environment and water shortages”. After just a day of in-depth discussion, they realised that they themselves were part of the food system challenge and believed that food consumption habits must be changed. People are much more astute than they are often given credit for – by government, by business and (dare I say it) even by NGOs like us. Participants recognised the need for change:
 
“In discussing a range of potential solutions there was clear support for those that were low-tech, natural or focused on behaviour change, although novel technologies or production processes were not rejected out of hand. For hi-tech solutions and processes there was a desire for an independent organisation to ensure that these were safe, worthwhile and that there were no low-tech alternatives which would be publicly acceptable and achieve similar outcomes.”
 
Government Office for Science – and relevant Secretaries of State, please take note! There is a fine line between providing better food choices and ‘telling people what to eat’, but the Government shouldn’t be reluctant to engage with citizens on food choices.  Can we not duplicate these in-depth dialogues on a much larger scale? Why not follow the lead of Wales, who ran the inspiring ‘the Wales we want’ national dialogues?
 
Perhaps it is also time for Which? to become a citizen champion rather than a consumer champion! Let’s have citizen dialogues rather than consumer dialogues, as the New Citizenship Project, co-founded by Jon Alexander, one of our Council members, encourages.
 
I’m a firm believer that deliberative thinking and inclusive dialogue are vital if we are to move towards a fair food system, and fair society. As we wrote in our flagship Food Justice report, fairness includes ‘fair share’ (equality of outcome), ‘fair play’ (equality of opportunity) and ‘fair say’ (autonomy and voice). How about a democratic food system with fairness at its heart?
 
Seeking solutions? Let’s ask the public – and let’s give food citizens a chance to prove themselves. Let’s all become Secretaries of State for Food.

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