“There once was an ugly duckling, with feathers all stubby and brown, and the other birds said in so many words, Get out of town, Get out, get out, get out of town”

As my two boys were singing this song the other day, I started to wonder what its meaning might be in a work context.

I’m unashamedly passionate about food. However, just as the ugly duckling was initially rejected by the other birds, it feels as if ethical food and farming concerns are also often rejected by what we might call the ‘establishment.’

Here at FEC we don’t ‘duck’ (sorry!) the big and controversial issues – in fact they are what we thrive on. We could wallow in self-pity and assume that fair, sustainable food will remain an overlooked ‘ugly duckling’ issue. But that would be a cop out. There is a lot we can and should do to improve the vibrant, varied and vital food and farming sector that we are a small part of.

Firstly, celebrate the amazing work already going on, for instance. in civil society work on food and farming as was highlighted in our recent Food Issues Census 2017 – and help accelerate the shift to sustainable food and farming.

Secondly, champion sustainable food issues in the public and political arenas, raising their profile. To quote an extract from Food Issues Census 2017: “Food matters: how we produce, trade and consume it touches many issues from climate change to human health and wellbeing, from the state of our environment to the plight of animals. The food sector is both responsible for many of these issues, and deeply affected by them. Because of its position at the heart of so many issues, food provides unique opportunities to develop joined up solutions to the problems faced by society”

Thirdly, challenge accepted thinking in a constructive and nonpartisan way that encourages people and organisations to consider – and value – other points of view.

There is growing momentum on this issue. A number of influential food and farming NGOs have already issued manifestos.  The next Government needs to take them seriously. I’d like to pick out the two organisations that Food Issues Census 2017 highlighted as the key civil society food and farming hubs in the UK:

Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming has set out its stall in a wide-ranging and powerful manifesto about ‘taking back control of our food, farming and fishing’.

Soil Association has outlined its own progressive priorities for the General Election, which include a major focus on soil protection.

I’d also draw your attention to Farmwel – a new initiative working to generate a move towards sustainable and accountable mainstream agriculture and aquaculture. We at the Food Ethics Council are supportive of Farmwel’s goals for secure and sustainable food. Looking after farmers, animals, communities, the environment and our own health will deliver multiple wins, in the short and the long-term.

Although coming from different places, each of the above chimes closely with our own holistic vision of a world where everyone eats healthily and sustainably, enjoying food that is produced and traded fairly and humanely.

Being realistic, the future of food and farming won’t be the first thing on most people’s minds as they enter the ballot box. Food and farming isn’t likely to become the ‘cinderella’ issue that turns overnight from ugly duckling into swan in the minds of politicians and the general public.

Traditional arguments would suggest that the key defining issues for voters will be jobs and the economy, immigration and the NHS – plus this time round, of course Brexit. Food, farming, animal welfare and the environment are often thought of as something separate and secondary.

In reality though, the ways in which we grow and eat our food shines spotlights on the critical issues that our society faces, from looking after workers to putting healthy food on children’s plates. It affects our climate, our health and our economy. A food system that debases our soil, leaves us with public health crises like obesity and diabetes, and contributes to an unstable climate ultimately costs the government – and taxpayers – billions of pounds a year.

At a time of great uncertainty and when the potential for apathy is high, it is crucial to break out of this ‘ugly duckling’ way of thinking about food and farming. Instead, let’s put the sustainable food movement centre stage, delivering a positive, powerful, healthy and exciting message for the future of our country.