From the loss of great cultural icons like David Bowie to the UK’s vote to leave the EU, the status quo was definitively shaken up in 2016. Here at the Food Ethics Council, our food and farming experts have given their take on 2016, and what might be in store for 2017.
One thing that stood out for Council members last year was the rejection – in both the UK and the US – of the established political order and experts. This rejection may well stem from a deep anxiety around inequalities and a distrust of the establishment’s willingness to create meaningful change in society.
What does this mean for food and farming? At the very least, that our policies for the future need to address this core challenge of tackling inequality.
The political shake up both sides of the pond has taught us that there’s no such thing as certainty. As the UK’s political elite faces up to a more hostile mood from society, there are signs that it is unsure about how to react.
Council members offer two food and farming related examples to illustrate the point. Firstly, in March last year the government announced it was planning to repeal farm animal welfare codes, in favour of industry-led guidance. However, after a hostile public reaction, the idea was scrapped.
And in August the government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy was launched. Prior to the publication, there were strong indications that policy makers were convinced by the evidence that information-led approaches and voluntary initiatives were inadequate to address the challenge. The message was that government was committed to using a robust package of measures to tackle the food environment and food culture to make it normal, easy and enjoyable for children and families to eat well.
The final document, published after a change of leadership at the top of the Conservative Party, was much diminished, and released with a complete absence of political support. The will to support a bold and innovative public health policy was no longer there. We can only guess why, but it’s not hard to imagine that the government felt that ‘the people’ wouldn’t take kindly to being told how to feed their children in the post-expert era.
These examples show that on the one hand, the tide has been moving towards better standards, with widespread public support. On the other, these gains are not set in stone and could be reversed according to short-term political gains, or industry lobbying.
We can’t just sit back and assume the future will be one of continued progress. Instead, we must make the case for example for higher standards – at a time when there are increasing economic pressures to water them down – particularly when it comes to the environment.
So perhaps one answer to the challenges thrown up by 2016 is to make sure that the many organisations and individuals who have already been working constructively together post Brexit continue to do so. This gives a great platform to develop coherent policy options, and to speak truth to power, standing up for a better food system.
2017 may offer more and better opportunities to do this. Council members report that many farmers and the farming press are increasingly waking up to the fact that as the chemistry is failing, antibiotics are implicated and soils are running out of steam, there are more ecological ways to farm.
There is now much interest in some of the methods that organisations like the Soil Association and many others have been promoting for decades. Even investors are ‘joining the party’. ShareAction and the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (FAIRR) initiative worked to get together a $1 trillion coalition of institutional investors to put pressure on major restaurant chains in the US and UK to tackle irresponsible use of antibiotics. The potential for investors to positively shape our food and farming future is only beginning to be unleashed.
Food Ethics Council members hope that Brexit will provide an opportunity to rethink food and farming policy and make it work for the health and wellbeing of the public, planet and animals. But for that to succeed we need Government to support a coming-together of health, environment and farming stakeholders to build a new consensus on how public money invested in farming and food can be used for the public good.
As one Council member put it, we also need to mobilise citizens to reshape the food system. There are already signs that they are motivated to get more engaged – civil society has to help them do that even more.
Examples here include the fact that Scottish craft beer BrewDog is the fastest growing UK food and drink brand, showing that equity crowdfunding is such a major model with capacity to make serious mainstream impact. And also that citizen science is taking off in such a big way, for example with the launch of the Nature Intelligence Unit. These and many other things show that involvement in the food system is evolving and changing, and people do want to participate and have a genuine stake in it.
So there are positives to look forward to in 2017. It’s crucial that civil society works together to make a strong and coherent case for a sustainable food system post Brexit; one that doesn’t dilute environmental protections, workers’ rights or animal welfare standards in the quest for ever greater productivity and efficiencies. And we must give citizens more opportunities to get engaged, whether that’s through local growing schemes or supporting advocacy to government.
We can only hope – and at the Food Ethics Council play our part in encouraging – that civil society gets organised (and fast), gets an audience with government, and succeeds in getting (an ideally Government-sponsored) Brexit Food and Farming Commission process.
The Green Papers on food and farming and the environment that Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom announced on 4th January must include the voices of all stakeholders, not just industry groups. People, planet and animals all have a stake in a fair food system. Bring on 2017!