The British referendum result to leave the EU, and Donald Trump’s win in the US, will change the face of domestic and international politics, and show that nothing can be taken for granted.

What do these uncharted waters mean for our food system? In the UK, there will be a root and branch review of thousands of pieces of EU legislation, many of which will directly or indirectly affect food and farming. Many businesses, trade associations and NGOs are already making clear their ideal food and farming future. This is no bad thing, but out of the mass of competing voices, how can the government create a food system that really is best for people, planet and animals?

There is deep unease amongst civil society organisations about the potential direction of travel for new food, farming, environment and social justice policies. Many also feel that there is a scrutiny gap and lack of joined up activity amongst them. Lobbying can help a depleted Whitehall to the ‘right’ decisions, but additional evidence and analysis is needed to ensure the UK remains at the vanguard of ethical farming and food systems.

Food Realities Index

That’s where the Food Ethics Council’s new programme comes in. It seeks to help fill the evidence and scrutiny gap by developing a new Food Realities Index to compare the UK against other OECD countries on food ethics issues.

The Index will provide a quantified assessment of the UK’s policies that relate to food issues, relative to other OECD countries. The first ‘beta version’ of the Index will be a baseline against which to measure progress during the Brexit negotiations and beyond. It will inform where the UK is and where it might want to be in the global arena, and in the context of the discussions and negotiations around exiting the EU.

The power of an Index

There is a wide body of evidence that shows how indices have been used effectively by civil society organisations. One such Index, created by UNICEF, shows the potential power they hold. 

In 2007 UNICEF published ‘Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries’ – the first index of the well-being of children and young people in the world’s advanced economies.

When the results were released the BBC reported that “the UK has been accused of failing its children, as it comes bottom of a league table for child well-being across 21 industrialised countries.”  The UK government was forced to respond that its initiatives in areas such as poverty, pregnancy rates, teenage smoking, drinking and risky sexual behaviour had improved children’s welfare. The week after its launch, the issue was aired in the House of Commons. In the following months the report set the tone for discussion about children in the UK.

When an updated index was published in 2013 the BBC reported that the “UK rises up UNICEF child well-being ranking,” but warned that we still lagged behind many of our European neighbours. UNICEF pointed out that the improvements seen under Labour risked being reversed by coalition cuts.

UNICEF’s index sought to utilise the power of evidence and common metrics across similar countries to focus on the shortcomings of relevant public policy in the UK. It also engaged in dialogue on what ‘good’ would look like, and over time updated the Index to assess if positive change had taken place.

The Food Realities Index learns from this and other credible indices to ensure it adds real value to the determination of future UK food and farming policy.

Uncertain times

The Food Realities Index will not be able to ignore the impact of what may happen across the Atlantic, given strong trade links between the US and UK in agricultural commodities and foodstuffs.

Even in the few days since his election victory, attention has turned to what President Trump will mean for Britain and the world. Based on his campaign rhetoric we might expect an increasingly inward-looking USA – more protectionist for sure; and uncertainty over what he may say and do leading to increased currency volatility.

With elections coming up in France and Germany, and an increasing backlash against globalisation in many countries, how do we plot a safe route through these uncharted waters? The Food Realities Index is our attempt to set a course for a fair food and farming system that is good for people, the planet and animals.

James is currently working with the Food Ethics Council on a pro-bono basis. He has worked in the food and grocery sector for 20 years, the last 14 at IGD where, until March, he was Director of Industry Programmes.  He has a PhD in food industry economics.  He can be contacted at