The result: a lively Square Meal debate at the Oxford Real Farming Conference!

The ‘appetiser’, served up expertly by Vicki Hird, took the form of a quick overview of how and why the Square Meal alliance had formed. 10 organisations with a diverse range of interests (9 leading NGOs plus the Food Research Collaboration from City University, London) came together to jointly demonstrate the overwhelming evidence of the need for a major change of national food and farming policy. The alliance is calling for an integrated and long-term approach to the future of land use, food, farming and the countryside, based on wide public engagement and benefitting society as a whole.

‘First course’ was a series of short two-minute injections from members of the Panel to introduce respective sections of the report – Professor Tim Lang (City University London) on health, yours truly (Food Ethics Council) on food, Mike Clarke (RSPB) on environment, Rob Macklin (National Trust) on farming and Philip Lymbery (Compassion in World Farming) on leadership.

We learned that the gap between rich and poor is widening in terms of public health and that the complexity of the public health system is a real barrier to progress. We heard how the food system is dysfunctional, as signalled by the hundreds of thousands of times people in the UK that turned to food banks in 2013-14. The catastrophic reduction in biodiversity was highlighted, not least through the loss of more than 44 million breeding birds in the UK in less than half a century. We heard how agriculture has been driven artificially by inputs and how farming, being inherently a long-term business, is sometimes perceived (often incorrectly) to be slow to change. Finally, there was a call for greater, bolder and more willing leadership from future Governments.

On a more positive note, we heard that there is a need and a desire for a bigger and different conversation around food. We also heard that there is much to be excited about in terms of sustainable food and farming activity going on at a local level across many parts of the UK.

For ‘main course’, the audience had the opportunity to challenge the panel and to share their own views on two key themes. Firstly, people were asked what they think the biggest barriers are to a more equitable food and farming system. Responses included a lack of appropriate education (hence there is a need for more agricultural scientists for example), a reluctance to bring in major legislation (none since the 1947 Agriculture Act!) and the lack of a national (and EU level) sustainable food policy.

Secondly, we explored what needs to be done and how we can best work together to create change. Lots of ideas were thrown into the mix. We can present powerful stories, images and videos to promote our key messages. We can mobilise the power of the internet and of online campaigning communities like Avaaz to engage large numbers of people. We can tap into progressive movements like Incredible Edible to drive change on the ground, and bring these issues to the attention of local politicians. We can engage people at all levels – from food business executives to local restaurateurs, from parliamentarians to local councillors. Crucially, we also need to engage the ultimate stewards of the land – our farmers. I left with the sense that there is great potential for civil society to rally together around the positive narrative of Square Meal and to put much-needed pressure on government and businesses to act. We need to give citizens a voice in the future of our food and farming systems.

The free-flowing debate meant there was barely time for the ‘final course’ – via a quick wrap-up from the Panel. So, what do we want? Several panellists argued for a more interventionist approach from government, with better regulation. Some argued for common sense practical steps, such as bringing farmers together more effectively to spread best practice. Others argued for more radicalism in the form of a “tidal wave of citizen leadership”. Personally, I think we need a blend of pragmatic radicalism and unfettered radicalism. Bring it on!