Alarm bells were ringing in my head straight away, as I took my seat at the launch of the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission yesterday. But luckily the alarm bells were not about the Commission itself! A fire alarm meant the building had to be evacuated minutes before the event was due to begin. Bad timing, but once everyone was back in their seats, it at least enabled a joke or two from the panel, including from Lord Curry (of Curry Commission fame), who said that one of the aims of the Commission was already being achieved – namely “to go around starting lots of fires” (metaphorically at least).
The event felt quite ‘old school’ at first glance – with lots of people in suits and ties sitting in a large room with giant portraits of past presidents adorning the walls, in the glamorous surroundings of the RSA building in central London. However, I’m hopeful that the ‘Commission’ will not be ‘old school’ in its approach – that it will listen, engage widely and come up with progressive recommendations for the future of food, farming, the countryside and more.
Sue Pritchard, Director of the Commission, explained that they would be taking evidence from around the country and engaging key stakeholders including citizens, both digitally and face-to-face. The Commission will do three deep-dive action research projects – in the north-west, the south-west and the east of England, plus separate inquiries in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
One of our Council members, Helen Browning (Chief Executive of the Soil Association and organic farmer) was rightly praised as the driving force behind getting the Commission to happen. Helen spoke eloquently about the need to “connect beyond the usual suspects, and to listen to what matters to people as citizens, not just as consumers” – echoing key messages from our recent work with the New Citizenship Project on food citizenship. Helen went on to say there are exciting opportunities for the Commission to “join things up, bang heads together and come up with a collective vision” and to “put health and wellbeing at the centre from the start”.
I would urge the Commission to be radical, inclusive and forward-looking. On the last of these, I’d like to see two things. Firstly, it’s vital that the Commission interacts with young people, in engaging ways, albeit the Commissioners are – perhaps not surprisingly – all senior and experienced figures. Secondly, I’d like at least one Commissioner to be given the role of ‘future generations’ commissioner, to be tasked with always taking the needs of future generations into account.
Caroline Mason, Chief Executive of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, who is funding the Commission’s work, spoke of the need for the Commission to bring in a “richness and variety of voices”, to “be collaborative”, to “build on and add to existing work” and to “turn a patchwork of ideas and opportunities into a mosaic that tells a compelling story”. Well put.
Big questions were asked of the Panel like how the Commission will handle the uncertainty over Brexit outcomes and whether and how it will reflect challenges about the true cost of food. We also heard more specific questions about hemp growing, pesticides, chicken shops and much more.
The huge range of questions neatly highlighted the breadth and complexity of the Commission’s remit, and its need to tackle big and messy challenges. If they didn’t know it before, the Commissioners have a tough job on their hands.
The good news though is that there is a large coalition of the willing, in optimistic mood, to make the most of this “once in a lifetime opportunity” that Sir Ian Cheshire, the Chair of the Commission, talked of. We at the Food Ethics Council are keen to support and challenge them to help make sure the Commission is a success.