A food system for the future

Posted: 9 December 2020 | | No comments yet

In the last Chris’ Corner of 2020, the professor reflects on Emily Miles’ recent speech and calls for more champions in Government, industry and academia, who will bring meaningful change next year.

Chris Corner Feature

It was very interesting that the head of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), Emily Miles, issued a call for better collaboration between industry and Government to help deliver a food system that’s good for human and planetary health. Although there is nothing strange (or new) about this request, as it is exactly what many of us have been calling for for a very long period of time, what is interesting is that it was said by the head of a Government agency which has always had a prickly relationship with industry and central Government.

The complexity of ‘food governance’ in the UK is staggering, with multiple departments and agencies all having a roll. In her speech, Miles asked for a major restructuring in Government to bring the required focus, and I agree that this will be necessary to help deliver the Dimbleby National Food Strategy, to be unveiled early next year. Unfortunately, I have doubts if this restructure will happen.

I do not believe that the two major players in the current Government, The Secretaries of State for Health and the Environment, are going to act as champions for such fundamental change. Not to mention, that neither are great supports of the FSA! The one politician who has stated he is behind such a seismic shift is Michael Gove, however, we have to bear in mind his fluctuating views. Need I remind anyone of his quick U-turn on scotch eggs as a substantial food. In other words, the direction of the ‘winds of change’ will be extremely important for Gove.

Miles’ speech also focused on the need for an improved relationship with the food industry and, in particular, the large retailers. This is absolutely true of course, but there was no mention of those who actually produce much of what we eat, ie, farmers – perhaps I missed it?

And, as my twitter feed has declared for all of 2020, ’75 percent of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species. This is what’s killing biodiversity, the planet and us humans.’ So, to my mind, the fundamental changes have to happen at the farm level. To do this, massive changes are needed which allow our farmers to diversify their crops while still being able to make a decent living.

For this to work, it’ll require many partnerships, not least between the Government and our farmers. However, recent announcements on post-Brexit arrangements do not augur well for this to happen. What is needed in the UK is a fundamental strategy that goes from ‘soil to society’, that is, a whole systems approach. We do have some unbelievable thought-leaders and actors who are trying to achieve this.

We can produce food that delivers both planetary and human health and will be trusted by the UK public. Perhaps I’m being very naïve, but what I think we need, in terms of political leadership, is a group of cross-party food systems champions who will help drive the necessary Governmental changes. Equally, we require champions from across supply chains who will work together.

What about for academics like myself? I often think our role is to act as critical friends; we can help bring independent thinking to complex and often tense discussions. And, as for the role of the FSA in all this? Standing up and being counted is a good (and brave) start; it seems to me like Miles is certainly doing this.

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