Money is like manure. You have to spread it around or it smells”. I shared that quote from J. Paul Getty, American industrialist, last night at a successful #Unwrapping Food event in Bristol yesterday evening – organised by ourselves, Triodos Bank and Organico.

The topic ‘unwrapped’ in front of a packed house in Bristol was ’how can we finance a fairer food system?’ and how to shift towards fair, sustainable food and farming. We didn’t come up with all the answers, but we never expected to.

Where is the sustainable food capital of the UK? That’s open for debate, but Bristol certainly put up a good case last night. I already knew there was a lot of sustainable food activity in the greater Bristol area, but seeing the full house yesterday only helped reinforce that. We saw everyone from city councillors to food enterprises, from students to vegetable producers –a very engaged audience who were clearly passionate about sustainable food and farming.

There was a plea from the audience for relationships between finance providers and sustainable food enterprises to be long-term – and for a desire to recognise social and environmental value, not just short-term financial profit.

We heard from Rebecca Pritchard, Head of Business Banking at Triodos Bank about the push for true cost accounting – to internalise the social and environmental externalities relating to the way food is produced and consumed. Rebecca noted that the average person in the UK only spends around 11% of their disposable income on food – much lower than many other countries in the Global North. She also talked of the need to shift away from thinking of ourselves as consumers, and to instead think of us as food citizens. This was music to my ears, as we’re big supporters of the opportunities that shifting from a consumer to citizen mindset can bring.

We heard from Phil Eaves, Supply Chain Director at Farmdrop, about the possibilities for food enterprises to do business differently, to shorten supply chains and to pay producers a much higher proportion than they typically get from the mainstream food retailers. This is the model that Farmdrop has adopted – and we learned how the business has been successful to date in raising finance to expand its growth, including through crowdfunding.

Julian Baggini, philosopher, author and member of the Food Ethics Council, then responded with some important provocations. One key challenge was how we avoid sustainable food becoming a middle-class indulgence that is out of the reach of lots of people in this country. Julian also challenged us to acknowledge how complex the issues are – and to avoid oversimplifications, such as ‘local is always best’. There were lots of nodding heads when Julian argued that “the more people buy into sustainable food systems, the more it will become politically and financially viable”.

Julian also flagged that we, as citizens, are ultimately the ones that finance the food system – most visibly through what we buy. However, I noted that our participation does not necessarily end there. To take one example, for those of us that have pensions, we should be challenging our pension providers on whether those investments are supporting sustainable food and farming. As food citizens, there is a lot we can do…

Those not physically in the room got involved too. People on social media responded to a question about imagining themselves in the shoes of a financial provider wanting to support fair, sustainable food and farming. One suggestion was to buy good land and lease it to young or new entrants in manageable parcels, and through grant support, underwrite their income while they get established. I was also reminded on Twitter that there are some organisations out there wanting to accelerate the shift to sustainable food and farming. This includes Funding Enlightened Agriculture, which is launching its new Just Growth Fund early in 2018 to provide affordable loans and mentoring. Triodos Bank itself of course lends to lots of organic farming businesses. However, there are not enough ‘enlightened’ finance providers at present.

In my summing up, I argued that cheap food cannot be the answer. Keeping prices artificially low will not work for anyone in the long-run. We need to better reflect the true cost of food in the price we pay at the checkout. Crucially, we then need to sort out the ‘money in’ side of the equation, through getting more people into work that pays and treats them well (including a real living wage) and through ensuring the Government provides a proper safety net.

Given the talk about money and fairness in the food system, it’s hard not to finish on a mucky note. In most existing models, farmers and food producers don’t get what they deserve. Surely it’s time to share the ‘manure’ round much more!