On 27th June, the Food Ethics Council passed a landmark moment – the 10th anniversary of our Business Forum. Across the past decade we’ve hosted speakers and guests over dinner to talk about some of the pressing ethical issues facing food and farming.
For our 10th anniversary we put forgotten food issues on the table. We were privileged to hear from Sheila Dillon, food journalist and longstanding presenter of Radio 4’s widely-respected ‘The Food Programme’, and Helen Browning OBE, organic farmer, Chief Executive of the Soil Association and Council member of the Food Ethics Council. You can read the report of our discussions here.
It seems that only a few food and farming issues hog the limelight in the media and in political and public discourse. They’re usually the issues that scream ‘scandal’ or ‘danger’. This unfortunate tendency means that many other equally important issues are often forgotten or neglected.
Occasionally these issues will rise to the surface, thanks to the tireless efforts of campaigning groups. The routine use of antibiotics in farm animals is one such example, where an alliance of civil society organisations worked with other experts to get the issue on the political agenda. It’s beginning to work, but we’ve still a way to go before animals are no longer routinely treated with antibiotics in the UK.
A key example of a forgotten food issue that was raised in the Business Forum is climate change. It was argued that there are at least three reasons why it’s not talked about in debates about food and farming. Firstly, people often think that it’s an issue that can be left for another day. Secondly, it requires consensus and unified action, which is tricky. And thirdly, it’s easy to use the excuse that it’s someone else’s fault.
Another potential forgotten food issue is pesticide approval. Most of the UK public have no idea how pesticides are approved, but the process potentially has a huge effect on how we farm, entrenching an industrialised and unsustainable food system. This can affect the environment and our health. It was argued around the Business Forum table that the approval process for pesticides tends to focus only on the short-term, immediate effects of the chemical input, and often neglects to look at how the pesticide interacts with other chemicals in food.
How can this, and other ‘forgotten’ issues, be driven up the public and political agenda? Our tweetchat on #forgottenfoodissues on Monday 17th July asked that question and more. We found that, like our Business Forum guests, climate change was ranked as a big forgotten issue, alongside regulatory transparency (e.g. our pesticide approval process), slavery and forced labour, and animal welfare.
We also asked what the various roles for government, media and civil society organisations should be in raising the profile of forgotten food issues. It was suggested that good, impartial investigative journalism is crucial in bringing these issues to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. Journalists’ work can often provoke public debate which then shifts government policy position. Civil society organisations working alongside the media can also be effective, as can investors.
People on our tweetchat generally thought that long-term, what one might call ‘chronic’ problems rarely get the attention they deserve because they’re not ‘sexy’. And yet, with Brexit’s impact on the way we grow and trade food, all food and farming issues need to be talked about.
And climate change? One of our twitter followers put it succinctly: we don’t think about climate change because of “#cognitivedissidence – some things are too uncomfortable to readily consider.”
Yet globally, climate change is already having a huge effect on food systems, and we shouldn’t think that we’re going to get off lightly. We all need to be playing our part in adapting our food systems to climate change, and to mitigating the effects of farming on our climate, whether we’re politicians, business people or citizens.
Download the report of our 10th anniversary Business Forum: Forgotten food issues: A case study of pesticides